Mystery of the Marsh

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

This evening the girls are off to the opera, as Lady Montague announced the other day (Chapter 25). Sir George Meredith won’t be dragged — says he feels sleepy. Men. The sparkle and glitter of a brilliant Friday evening play upon the rippling Thames, as the London bon ton arrive in a magnificent array of carriages and barges to congregate at the opera house. Due to the oppressive warmth, the storm clouds gather.

It is Catalini’s farewell … make that Madame Angelica Catalani (1779 – 1849), the world’s — the century’s — most famous, most fabulous soprano. We won’t be meeting her in person, hardly seeing her on stage, except to learn that during the performance the prince regent bowed to her from the royal box. Smith is at it again: the diva transcends beyond measure the regent George’s paltry, self-aggrandizing gesture — his laughable setting of his seal upon her triumph.

‘Madame Catalani in Seriramide’ (1806). Hand-coloured etching, Robert Dighton. Source: British Museum

Catalani’s inclusion reinforces a backdrop of high culture as only a stellar diva is able. She was the Cécilia Bartoli, the Montserrat Caballé, the Maria Callas of the day; like such towering figures, seemingly endowed with a richer essence of human soul, by their excellence in that highest of high art.

I wonder if we might take a few minutes to establish a mood. Let us view a short video clip of the incomparable Bartoli, the greatest coloratura mezzo of all time (such a talent demands superlatives). It is “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria, originally intended for soprano castrato, from Handel’s opera Serse (1738).

Catalani’s sublime voice belied her humble origins. Born in Senigallia, Italy, she is said to have been a match girl. She was rescued from an obscure life by her possession of a phenomenal voice. Despite having little knowledge of music, she made her operatic debut in Rome at fifteen, and her fame soon spread throughout Europe.

In Lisbon, her vocal gifts were cultivated to sublimity. To the deep regret of the Portugese, from there she went to Madrid, where she was feted by the Spanish court; thence to Paris, to be showered in the applause and adulation not only of the French public, but of the Emperor himself.

Napoleon was so enraptured that he offered her 100,000 francs to stay in France. When she declined, he refused her a visa to leave, so she disguised herself as a nun in order to escape to London, performing at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket. She reigned for seven years in England as unrivalled prima donna — for she would brook no rival — winning the affections of the public and those at the highest levels of society.

“Her voice,” wrote Lord Mount-Edgcumbe,

… is of a most uncommon quality, and capable of exertions almost supernatural. Her throat seems endued (as has been remarked by medical men) with a power of expansion and muscular motion by no means usual, and when she throws out all her voice to the utmost, it has a volume and strength that are quite surprising; while its agility in divisions, running up and down the scale in semi-tones, and its compass in jumping over two octaves at once, are equally astonishing.

“Place her at the top of St. Paul’s,” it was popularly held, “and she will be heard at the Opera House.”

She is the subject of some nice anecdotes.

Once, at a dinner party in Weimar, she was sat next to Goethe, about whom she knew absolutely nothing. Taken by his fine appearance, she enquired who he was, and was told, “The celebrated Goethe, madam.”

“On what instrument does he play?”

“He is not a performer, madame; he is the renowned author of Werther — The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe’s first novel, a tragic, angst-ridden, semi-biographical story of love and suicide.

Whereupon, turning to the poet, she gushed: “I am such an admirer of Werther!” — to which he bowed deeply.

“I never read anything half so laughable in my life,” she continued, laughing. “What a capital farce! Never was there anything so exquisitely ridiculous.”

She knew the great work only by way of a parodic farce she had seen performed at a minor Parisian theatre.


Opera Night in London, Followed by a Voyage down the River Thames — Trapped at Last — Three Birds Instead of Two

Most of our readers, in all probability, have witnessed a review, with its clouds of dust, confusion, the hurrying to and fro of aides-de-camp; occasional clubbing of a whole company, to the intense mortification of its officers, although as a matter of etiquette the blame never falls upon them. The poor, over-taxed sergeants and men have to bear it all. To the Pekins — non-military spectators — it is a perfect mystery, and sometimes to those who wear the epaulette.

The inspection of a single regiment is a different and far more business-like affair.

The men of the —- (we purposely omit the number of the regiment) were drawn up on the parade ground of the barracks at Knightsbridge, when Lord Sturton, accompanied by the lieutenant-colonel, his aide-de-camp and several field officers, made his appearance on the ground. The day was a warm one; neither officers nor men looked particularly cheerful — for, as Egbert told his cousins, his lordship was something of a martinet; added to which, it was his own regiment he was about to inspect.

Here a few words of explanation are absolutely necessary. In the British service cavalry regiments are almost invariably commanded by their lieutenant colonel, on whom rests all the responsibility. The head colonelship is held by a general, to whom it has been given as a reward for meritorious service, sometimes we fear for other reasons. Of course they draw the pay

A single troop escaped the irascible comments of the old general — the one commanded by Lord Bury. The horses were in splendid condition, and as for the accoutrements, not a strap or buckle out of place.

‘On my word, Bury,’ said the old soldier, when the wearisome task at last was ended, ‘your company does you great credit. Horses splendid; no better mounted men in the service.’

Although much gratified by the compliment, the young guardsman was too generous to appropriate it entirely to himself.

‘I am fortunate, General, in my sergeant,’ he replied.

‘Ah! Some old campaigner, no doubt.’

‘On the contrary, about my own age, certainly not a year older,’ added Lord Bury. ‘The son of a rich farmer, one of my uncle Sir George Meredith’s tenants. His father has repeatedly offered to buy his discharge — but Tom Randal refuses to leave the service.’

‘Fine fellow!’ ejaculated the general. ‘Wish we had more such men. What is his general character?’

‘Excellent; not a single black mark against him.’

‘And understands horses?’

‘Your lordship has seen the condition of those of my troop. All owing to Randal’s care. He never suffers a man to shirk his duty, particularly the hand-rubbing.’

This was touching the inspector-general of cavalry on one of his weak points, perhaps the very weakest. The system of hand-rubbing had only lately been introduced into the service. Lord Sturton highly approved of it. The privates detested it, and we do not wonder at it. The duty was performed in the stable; each man had to kneel down and for half an hour rub the fetlocks of his horse. The regulation has since been abolished, or fallen into disuse. Too many painful and even fatal accidents occurred.

‘Bury,’ said Lord Sturton, ‘I have a great mind to send him to the Veterinary College.’

‘He would do credit, General, to your recommendation.’

‘We will see about it. Rare chance for him; sure of a commission.’

Here one or two words of explanation are necessary. The officers of the household troops — the most privileged regiments in the service — are invariably selected from the members of the aristocracy. No commoner, unless nobly connected; or backed by great political interest, can hope to obtain a commission in them, and when he does he is looked down upon as a parvenu. To this rule, as to many others, there are some exceptions. The paymaster, veterinary surgeons and adjutant either rise from the ranks or are taken from other regiments. They must have commissions; but rarely rise above the rank of cornet.

Young fellows, with more money than brains, proud of their Norman blood and ancestral acres, cannot be expected to take such mechanical, tiresome duties upon their delicate shoulders. They consider that they have quite sufficient to do in attending parades, drawing-rooms, court balls, or once a year guarding the person of the sovereign on his or her way to Parliament. To do them justice, these feather-bed soldiers have rarely shown any want of pluck in-the field. Waterloo, the Peninsula, and Crimea have proved it.

Lord Sturton kept the promise he had hinted at; that very same day Tom Randal received his nomination to the newly-established college for veterinary surgeons, which gave him the somewhat hybrid rank of cadet.

We trust our readers have not forgotten Tom Randal, the lover of Phœbe, the May Queen, who had so handsomely thrashed Squire Burcham for insulting her. Press of matter, as the newspapers say, compelled us to drop them for awhile; but they were sure to appear upon the scene again.

Lord Bury rejoiced in the advancement of his humble friend, which he knew would please both Clara and her father. The only drawback to his satisfaction was the prospect of thee mess-dinner to which the inspecting general had been, as a matter of course, invited. No avoiding that, Lady Montague and her niece would have to visit the opera unattended. There was no coaxing Sir George Meredith to accompany them. He vowed that the music made him sleepy.

We have known it produce that effect sometimes; but not with Catalini, Pasta, Grisi, or the divine Malibran upon the scene.

London has been pronounced the most magnificent city in the world. It is undoubtedly the largest. It has magnificent buildings, noble institutions, richly endowed hospitals, and offers educational advantages of which Englishmen naturally feel proud; and yet we cannot call it magnificent. The contrasts between wealth and poverty, which strike the eye at every turn, are too great. Velvet and calico, ermine and rags, jostle together in the same streets.

Like most great cities, London may be studied best in its undercurrents of good and evil; it is there the true keys to the enigma will be found. Large benevolence, in which ostentation does sometimes contrive to show its face; great domestic virtues, especially in the middle classes; a tolerably fair amount of honesty, though still far from, what might be desired, contrast with crime and vice in almost every direction.

In London almost everything may be bought for money — from the smile of beauty, trained by speculating mothers to accept the richest offers, up to that priceless gem, the human soul, provided you are able to bid high enough for it. Vice never need lack either a pander, an instrument, nor a victim, provided the yellow dross is ready to be counted down in payment for them.

London should be seen at night to understand half its glory and its shame; throngs of carriages, filled with, lovely women hastening to the opera, ball-room, or routs, their dazzling toilets and sparkling gems exciting glances of admiration or envy from their poorer sisters in the streets, who little dream how sad a heart too frequently beats beneath the load of wealth and finery — links in the chains which bind all but the affections.

Few women better understood the terrible facilities which the possession of wealth can lend to crime, or felt less scruple in using it, than Lady All worth. Born of poor and very humble parentage, she had acquired, first gold — then rank; but the crowning object of her ambitious scheming — the marriage of her worthless son with Lady Kate Kepple — had yet to be achieved. She had been checkmated once, and the defeat galled her. The great fortune of the fair girl whose happiness she laboured to destroy, although it excited fierce cupidity, was not the end in view. She wanted to see the reputation of Clarence sufficiently whitewashed to enable him to show his face in society again.

London Bridge Night, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93)

The plans of Lady Allworth had been cautiously and cunningly laid, the details carefully studied, and contingencies guarded against — in short, all that brain-work and money could accomplish had been done patiently, earnestly; and the day at last arrived which was to test the strength of the nets so persistently woven. Day! We should have written night; for, honest, open-faced day, with its broad sunlight streaming around, penetrating every nook and cranny, curious eyes peering around, hands ready to resist evil, renders the execution of such projects as the one we are about to describe all but impossible; or, if not impossible, ten times more hazardous.

The day had been exceedingly sultry; one of those scorching, metallic ones on which summer presses its bronze kiss upon the brow of rustic labour, and lazy poverty languidly stretches itself in the shade, trusting to accident for the bread which patient industry is toilsomely earning. Lady Montague had decided to proceed to London in her barge. There is always a chance of catching a breeze upon tbe Thames, and the opera could not be missed. Her ladyship and her nieces arrived in safety. Poor Clara missed the arm of Egbert sadly, and once or twice murmured to herself: ‘That odious inspection!’ Her cousin, Kate, who read what was passing in her mind, smiled gaily as she whispered in her ear: ‘Don’t fret, darling. He will be here in time to see us back to Belmont.’

The last strains of the opera of the night had been heard, encores graciously complied with — Catalini was ever liberal in that respect — wreaths flung and gracefully acknowledged. The regent had set the seal upon the great singer’s success by bowing to her from the royal box. This last act of condescension raised the enthusiasm of the aristocratic audience to its height.

The English Sardanapalus was certainly the glass of fashion; but how about the ‘mould of form,’ as his flatterers styled him? He weighed at least twenty stones at the period we are writing of him. Still, young men dressed by him, wasted hours before the glass trying to copy his bow, which really was inimitable, and arranging the almost historic love-lock of his curly wig carefully over the left temple, gumming it there; Beau Brummel christened it, ‘his royal highness’s persuader.’

Poor, obstinate George III was a man in comparison with his son. His bigotry was at least sincere, his obstinacy constitutional, his prejudices the result of a bad education. Of the two, we prefer the blind old king to the elderly Adonis of sixty who succeeded him.

Leaning on the arm of a nobleman who, if tradition is to be believed, had been one of her early admirers. Lady Montague made her way to the crush room, where the tired audience huddled together till their carriages were called, fully believing that her nieces were following. Alas! it was not so. Looking around, she perceived their absence, and, although not greatly alarmed, commenced a series of inquiries amongst her acquaintances.

At this instant a gentleman, quietly but irreproachably dressed, approached her.

‘Be under no alarm, Lady Montague,’ he said. ‘Lady Kate and her cousin are perfectly safe. Sir George Meredith is escorting them.’

The speaker was no other than Roland Brit, the son of Lady Allworth’s agent and solicitor. He had, in a theatrical phrase, got himself up exceedingly well for the occasion. It was a deep-laid plot. Who could have suspected such duplicity?

His dupe, greatly relieved, bowed graciously.

‘Who is that gentleman?’ she inquired of her companion.


‘The one who spoke to me just now.’

By this time Brit, junior, having played his part, had prudently withdrawn amongst the crowd.

‘Can’t say,’ replied her ladyship’s escort, ‘Seen his face somewhere — not in my set. How terribly warm! Must end in a storm.’

His lordship was right. The rain already had commenced falling— splash ! splash! — the large round drops hissing as they reached the hot pavement.

An instant later the voice of one of the Bow-street officers announced Lady Montague’s carriage.

‘I am really too fatigued to return to Belmont to-night,’ observed its owner, as she sank upon its cushioned seat. Run and tell the bargemen to put op at Searle’s. And you, Willis,’ this was to the second footman, ‘remain to assist Sir George and my nieces.’

These orders were punctually obeyed, and a few minutes later the speaker found herself comfortably seated in her own luxuriously furnished boudoir at Montague House, where we most leave her for a while and hasten back to the opera.

Say what foreigners will, Englishmen are naturally gallant. They may not excel in compliments — in fact, they are rather awkward at them; but in right-down manly gallantry, readiness to assist the weaker sex in any little embarrassment, they are not to he surpassed. Frenchmen are just as willing, no doubt, but, then, they would expect a pretty speech or glance of admiration is return. The bow or simple smile of acknowledgment which is all an Englishman expects, would scarcely satisfy them.

In the really arduous attempt to make their way to the crush room, the half-terrified cousins received the benefit of this characteristic of their fellow-countrymen. The young ones hastily made way for the two high-bred, beautiful girls, who had evidently lost their chaperon, Even the ladies under their charge— usually so tenacious of their privilege — smiled approval. The ‘If you please,’ ‘Pray let us pass,’ so plaintively uttered, acted like a charm.

By great good fortune — they never clearly comprehended how it was done — Clara and Lady Kate not only succeeded in reaching the crush room, but penetrated as far as the grand vestibule of the opera house, where, to their great delight, they discovered Susan and the old footman, Willis. The grateful, affectionate girl, foreseeing the terrible storm about to break over the metropolis, had returned with the barge when she quitted Belmont a second time, to bring back Lady Montague and her nieces. She brought veils, cloaks, and all kinds of feminine wraps to guard her young ladies against the driving rain, and with nimble fingers proceeded to wrap them in them.

Again the cry of ‘Lady Montague’s carriage stops the way,’ was shouted out. Willis hurried his young ladies into it, Susan followed, and in a few minutes they were driving rapidly down Parliament-street, then newly lighted with gas.

Our readers will please recollect that the aunt of the two unsuspicious victims of this diabolical plot, when she decided on remaining in London for the night, had directed one of the footmen to hasten to Westminster Stairs, with orders to the rowers to put up at Searle’s. The prospect of a row of ten or twelve miles in such a storm was not particularly enticing, and the men obeyed with alacrity. Unstrapping their oars, which they left upon the benches facing the door of the cabin, they hastened to more comfortable quarters, leaving the barge moored to the bank of the river.

As the rowers disappeared over the bridge an equal number of men, wearing the same livery, emerged from under one of the dry arches, where they had been patiently watching, and silently taking the vacant seats, awaited the arrival of the expected victims.

They came at last. The old footman carefully conducted the cousins and Susan to the cabin, and closed the door, taking his seat on the outside near to it.

Every detail of the diabolical scheme had been studied by its clever contriver, even to the plank they had to walk across to reach the boat.

The first thing that struck Clara and Lady Kate was the form of their venerable relative sleeping, as they thought, upon one of the sofas, the rich velvet mantle she always wore on quitting the heated opera or the ball-room thrown carelessly over her.

By this time the barge was fairly afloat in the centre of the stream, and rapidly approaching London Bridge, beneath whose arches the current, swollen by the rain, flowed with unusual swiftness.

‘Poor dear!’ observed Clara Meredith, regarding the recumbent figure. ‘She must be terribly fatigued. I almost wonder she can sleep, so fearful as she is of lightning. There was a flash! It almost blinded me. Fortunately the shutters are nearly all of them closed.’

‘Fortunately, indeed,’ answered Kate. ‘Thank Heaven, we shall soon be at Belmont. The tide is in our favour. I am not so much frightened as I appear to be, although I never but once witnessed a storm like this.’

The still unsuspecting girl alluded to the memorable night at the Red Barn at Deerhurst, and an involuntary shudder thrilled through her frame as she recollected it.

‘There again!’ half-shrieked the speaker, as a still louder peal startled the inmates of the cabin. ‘I wonder aunt did not decide on remaining for the night in town — and such a night as it is, too.’

Once, and once only, did a possibility of rescue present itself. Just below Rotherhite the barge passed a large boat manned by the Thames police. A cry might have brought assistance, but it was not uttered, for no one suspected any danger. The disguised rowers perceived it; they recognised the police boat by the lantern at the bow, and instantly commenced singing a boisterous rude chorus, peculiar to the inhabitants of the Bittern’s Marsh, in order to drown any alarm that might be given.

Susan listened to it in astonishment. She had heard it more than once as the half-drunken smugglers staggered along the straggling streets at Deerhurst. She could not comprehend it. An instant’s reflection, however, convinced her that something must be wrong, and opening the door of the cabin, she called loudly for Willis.

‘Ladies,’ said the old man, who looked as if he had been startled from sleep, ‘I can’t make it out. We must have passed Belmont. The servants are either drunk or crazy.’

‘See what it is,’ said Clara Meredith. ‘Tell them they will disturb my aunt. Insist on their keeping silence. This conduct is intolerable.’

As the faithful domestic disappeared, the supposed sleeper began to stir, and something very like a chuckle was heard from beneath the velvet mantle.

The two cousins stood riveted with surprise.

Suddenly loud cries for assistance, mingled with oaths, curses, and a shuffling of feet upon the deck overhead. Susan, who had followed Willis to the door of the cabin, staggered back.

‘They are murdering him! They are murdering the old man!’ she exclaimed.

A pause of fearful suspense ensued, broken at last by the splash, as of a body falling into the water; then a second pause, and again the barge resumed its way.

Kate rushed towards the sofa, calling upon her aunt to assume her authority to quell the disturbance. Snatching aside the mantle, she recognised, not the features of her venerable relative, but those of the ruffian who years before had tried to drag her into the swamp. No wonder the girl stood spell-bound with disgust and horror. Not for an instant did she indulge the hope of a mistake, but knew him instantly as he drew himself up, and sat leering insolently upon her.

There are countenances both of love and hate, which, once seen, remain photographed upon the heart and brain forever.

The tramp Pike’s was one of them.

Clara Meredith, fully awake at last to the peril of herself and her cousin, began to utter loud shrieks, in which the equally terrified Susan joined her.

‘Stash it,’ said the tramp. ‘Yer aint got no young feller — Bunce I think he calls hisself — to stand up for yer now; nor any farmer boys. It’s no use a skreeching. I ha’ caught yer again, and don’t mean to let yer go.’

The terrified girl clung to the side of her cousin, who scarcely yet realized the full horror of their position. Clara Meredith considered, as far as she felt capable of considering, the circumstance that the outrage was aimed at Kate alone. A thought of Burcham never struck her. Being naturally of a firm spirit, she somewhat recovered her self-possession.

‘What is the meaning of this outrage?’ she demanded. ‘To extort money? or have you been set on by wretches viler than yourself? Are you such a fool as to imagine that two ladies of our rank and fortune can be carried off with impunity? If we are helpless,’ she added, ‘our relatives are rich and powerful.’

‘Ours aint poor,’ observed Pike, with a grin.

‘Probably not,’ continued the fair girl; ‘but there is something beyond money to be considered — that is, if you are wise. My father, Sir George Meredith, has great influence with the government. Every engine will be set to work to trace our whereabouts. Reflect, then. Is it not wiser to restore us to our friends, and receive in return twice the sum your base employers have promised you?’

Pike shook his head.

‘It won’t do,’ he said. ‘I’m staunch — can’t trust you.’

‘We have jewels.’

‘What be they?’ said the tramp. ‘Them shiny things in your ears and on your fingers? Don’t understand the vally on ’em; and, if I did, I dare not listen to you.’

‘Dare not?’ repeated Clara. ‘Why?’

‘You know of suthin’ that happened on deck.’

He alluded to the brutal murder of the faithful Willis.

The three unhappy girls crowded together as if to find protection. Susan kept murmuring to herself:

‘Oh! if Goliah were only here!’

Shortly after dawn the barge neared the Essex coast, and despite their faint attempts at resistance, the well-paid ruffians landed their prisoners, and a rough conveyance took them to the martello tower prepared for their reception months beforehand.

We need not tell our readers they were in the Bitterns’ Marsh.

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes, References, Further Reading

  • occasional clubbing …: Wasn’t able to track down this expression. Might it mean unacceptable insouciance or talkativeness of soldiers on review?
  • Sardanapalus: Ctesias’ portrayal of the decadent last king of Assyria (actually Ashur-uballit II [612–605 BC]), who “spends his life in self-indulgence and dies in an orgy of destruction” (Wikipedia). Another cruel jibe at the regent.
  • Catalini / Catalani: Almost always the latter, with occasional exceptions.
  • * Catalani’s farewell: According to Grove, Catalani departed the London theatre at the end of the 1811 season (though the Wikisource extract from Grove has 1813) . She returned to London for a while in 1824 to perform for a few nights without a regular engagement; however, this was post-Regency (1811 – 1820), so the regent could not have bowed to her qua regent. Therefore, for working purposes we can assume that the action occurs in 1811/1813.
  • Pasta, Grisi, Malibran: Giuditta Angiola Maria Costanza Pasta (1797 – 1865), Italian soprano, has been compared to Callas; Carlotta Grisi (1819 – 99), Italian ballet dancer; Maria Felicia Malibran (1808 – 36), famous Spanish opera star, legendary after her death at 28 years.

Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Catalani. Wikisource.

Grove, George, ed. Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1900), Vol 1. Available at Internet Archive. Jump to page.

‘Review of The Music of Nature; or an Attempt to prove that what is passionate and pleasing in the art of Singing, Speaking, and Performing upon Musical Instruments, is derived from the Sounds of the Animated World; with Curious and Interesting Illustrations’, by William Gardner (Boston 1837)’. N.A., The New Monthly Magazine and Journal, Vol. 12, no. 60, Dec. 1823 (London). Available on Google Play. Jump to journal.

Ganzi, Kurt. Victorian Vocalists (London: Routledge, 2018). Available Google Books. Jump to file.

‘All things Georgian.’ Jump to webpage.

‘Regency World’ (Catalani): Jump to blog.

‘Madame Catalani.’ The Australian, 2 March 1839. Jump to article. The diva’s fame spread to the Antipodes.

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