Mystery of the Marsh

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

The unflappable Clara rebukes her “gentleman” kidnapper, Marsham:

‘You forget,’ she added, ironically, ‘the law against bigamy.’

Her quip anticipates Morticia Addams’, who, bitten by the green-eyed monster, tests a barb on her unwitting husband:

‘Gomez, do you know the penalty for bigamy?’
‘… Two wives?’

It must be the narrator’s tone that provokes our flippant response. He adopts a certain ironical distance himself, with his “We must not forget the ladies …”, his “As our readers may suppose …”, and the variants — sometimes quite teasing ones. In clear and simple prose, Smith exercises a virtuosic ability to combine seriousness and playfulness in artistic equipoise.

We tend to become glib in the face of high drama and, especially, melodrama. Smith anticipates such a reaction with his playful self-reflexive ironies. In the current chapter, making a second appearance is the character Smith, whom the villains hired and brought back with them from Dinant to the Bitterns’ Marsh. (Can it be Bunce in disguise?)

Being such a common name, ‘Smith’ is almost a byword for ‘pseudonym’. How tempting might it be for this author Smith, the mischief-maker, to use his actual name, the archetypal pseudonym, as a pseudonym for himself? It would be an audacious gesture indeed, to ‘stride the boards’, as it were, of his own novel; to make a cheeky cameo performance after the fashion (or rather, before the fashion) of a Hitchcock or a Tarantino.

Before you scoff, notice the several throwaway quips on the name, Smith, which commence with the very chapter outline, and turn up a few times in the narrative and dialogue. Marsham is given the subtlest to say:

‘The fellow appears infernally indifferent to everything; walks about the old tower as if he owned the place ….

which is to say, in the manner of an author-god (as one mask).

Effects such as these gesture to a metafictional dimension, which characterizes writers such as Borges, Eco, Calvino, Pirandello, etc., who are held by many to herald or exemplify postmodernist fiction. This is, broadly speaking, a genre that draws attention to its own artifice; that parodies, pastiches and deconstructs traditional conventions, often implicitly incorporating the figures of the author and reader in the aesthetic action.

At the same time, we should bear in mind that many writers as “dated” as Sterne (18th c.) and Cervantes (15th c.) demonstrate similar if not identical characteristics.

So it is not particularly radical to observe metafictional effects here, though we hardly consider them as defining. The form of serialization lends itself well to such features. Consider the current instalment of the meercat ad, which ends with the two Russian protagonists clutching to the edge of a cliff:

Aleksandr: Is this the end, Sergei?
Sergei: No, it’s only a cliffhanger …

Unlike a finished work, in one aspect the serialized novel unfolds itself in the same temporal frame as the reader’s own. Devices such as the cliffhanger, and the author’s address to the “gentle reader” convey a tacit wink, an acknowledgement of secretly inhabiting an identical world.

From Sydney Punch Title Page

Sydney Punch, title page (Jan 20 1866), cropped

Apart from our own, the only extant instance of reader-reception of Mystery of the Marsh is an article in  Sydney Punch (Saturday June 9, 1883), which appeared at precisely our stage of the narrative, as published in the Evening News (Sydney, Wednesday June 13, 1883), in a column called “Family Jars.” The piece is a good measure of the popularity of Smith’s work among the Sydney readership. The author succumbs to one of the lower forms of wit, though we presume he is paid to do so.

Night after night do we frantically devour the thrilling tale which adorns the last sheet of the Even Ooze, and which bears the Fisher’s Ghost-like title of the “Mystery of the Marsh.” It is now in its thirtieth chapter, and seems to have wind enough left to run thirty more, so that each gentle reader pays 5 shillings by instalments for a tale that can probably be bought at Paddy’s market for 5 pence. Of late we have been deeply grieved to find the fair heroine occasionally “sot down very hard,” but things are evidently on the mend, and the conspirators sing —

“Farewell! farewell! I would not fling
Around thy brow the veil of sorrow.”

Quite right, too; for the man who would raise his hand to a woman (except in self-defence) is worthy of the name of a Pitt-street hero. It’s always safest to stand well away, and pelt the furniture after her.


The Martello Tower and the Prisoners — A Smith who is neither a White or a Black Smith — A Hut in the Bitterns’ Marsh

We must not forget the ladies, whom, at the close of our last number, we left prisoners in the martello tower. The plot had succeeded. Money and brain-work, badly applied, carried out the daring scheme of the unprincipled Lady Allworth, whose insane desire to enrich her son without materially lessening her own means, knew no let nor hindrance. Scruples she had none. As for conscience — that was a myth with her, or, at least, a thing of the past.

It was some time before the terrified girls recovered sufficient self-possession to look around them. A calm consideration of their position was equally out of the question; their senses were in a whirl of confusion; one moment it seemed to them as if they were in a hideous dream; it needed the sound of each other’s voice to convince them that they were not sleeping.

Susan was the first to recover her presence of mind. There was a considerable amount of commonsense, as well as courage, in the girl. Whilst Clara and Kate sat helplessly, hopelessly locked in each other’s arms, she commenced taking a practical view of the situation — not a very encouraging one, certainly; neither did it appear to her utterly hopeless.

After a glance at the strongly-barred windows, her eyes fell upon a pile of books; some in parchment covers, others in quaint old binding, mixed with a few Elzivers and several manuscripts piled confusedly in one of the corners of the room. In the first one she opened she read the name of Theophilus Blackmore, the ex-schoolmaster of Deerhurst, and a sigh of relief escaped her. Having learnt both writing and arithmetic under his care, of course she was well acquainted with the man — had never heard anything very bad of him. As for his son, Benoni, whom she had several times rejected, she smiled with contempt at the idea of any danger from that quarter.

‘Why, Goliah would brain him!’ she muttered to herself.

And so, no doubt, he would, if ever he discovered that his rival had a hand in carrying her off.

‘Dear, kind ladies,’ she said, addressing her companions in captivity, ‘things look quite bad and ugly enough, still we must not despair. I do not believe that the owner of this place would lend himself to any very wicked act. He is old, and lives more amongst books than his fellow creatures. I could almost answer for him.’

‘But not for the wretches who have employed him,’ observed Miss Meredith. This was a view of the situation Susan had not taken.

The noise made by someone unlocking the door of their prison chamber startled them. Poor Lady Kate clung to the side of her cousin, imploring her not to leave her. She recollected but too well the horrors of the night at the Red Barn.

‘Kill me first!’ she exclaimed. ‘Kill me!’

The door opened. Clarence Marsham, accompanied by his confederate, Burcham, entered the room, leaving the taciturn fellow named Smith, whose services they had engaged at Dinant, to guard the entrance. With the cunning peculiar to great criminals they had concealed from the man, not the purpose, but names of their victims — also the locality in which they expected to find them. To all appearance this new agent in their schemes was not over-troubled with scruples, expressed little curiosity, and seemed to trouble himself only for the reward — half of which had been paid down before he consented to start with them.

On recognising the suitor she had so contemptuously rejected, Miss Meredith saw that the same danger threatened both her cousin and herself. Her heart beat probably as violently as her cousin’s; but she possessed more self-command. Drawing herself up to her full height she fixed her eyes upon Clarence, affecting to ignore all knowledge of his companion.

‘Perhaps you will explain, Mr. Marsham, the meaning of this double outrage. Your designs on the hand and fortune of Lady Kate Kepple I have long been acquainted with, and the disgraceful means by which, on a former occasion, you attempted to accomplish them. But why am I here? Is it a part of your scheme — perhaps I ought to say your mother’s — to marry both the cousins, and so secure a double inheritance? You forget,’ she added, ironically, ‘the law against bigamy.’

‘No, Clara. Nothing of that kind. I —’

‘You are familiar, sir,’ interrupted the insulted girl, calmly. ‘Since I am compelled to exchange words with so contemptible a person, he will address me only as Miss Meredith.’

‘Hang it, Clara — well, then, Miss Meredith, since you will have it so — you know well enough what we intend — to make you our wives. The clergyman will not arrive till to-morrow night, so you and Kate have plenty of time to think it over. We can play the lovers afterwards. It will be your own fault if we use any but the gentlest persuasion.’

‘And are you weak enough to suppose, Mr. Marsham, that such a marriage would be binding?’

‘As for that, we will take the risk,’ replied the young ruffian, beginning to feel nettled at the determined tone of the speaker. ‘Once married, I don’t suppose you and Kate will be very anxious to create a scandal. Hang it, Burcham, why the devil don’t you speak? She is your affair — not mine. All I have to do is with her cousin Kate.’

‘Back, sir!’ exclaimed Clara, as the squire approached the spot where she was standing. ‘I cannot descend to exchange words with two felons in one day!’


‘Murderers!’ shrieked Kate. ‘They will kill us as they have killed poor old Willis!’

‘Killed?’ repeated Clarence. ‘We have killed no one. Not such fools as that.’

Susan was about to speak, when a warning glance from Clara restrained her. Had the faithful girl declared herself a witness of the crime it might have cost her her life. Miss Meredith had no such fears upon her own account. Her danger was of a different nature.

‘Brutally murdered,’ she repeated, ‘by the ruffians you employed to decoy us here. Although prisoners in the cabin of the barge, we recognised his voice, heard his cries for assistance, the oaths of the assassins as they plunged the body of the old man into the river.’

At this intelligence Clarence Marsham and his companion looked exceedingly blank. Much as money, rank, and political influence could do in England, they knew them to be powerless to condone crime where life had been taken. It was the first hint they had received of the death of the aged servant. The perpetrators had kept their own secret.

Another source of embarrassment: They did not feel perfectly assured of the fidelity of the man they had engaged in Dinant, and who, from his position in the passage, must have heard every word of the accusation. The fellow had made a hard bargain with them, played off and on, haggled over the price of his services — in short, acted his part so well that doubt balanced confidence. One moment the conspirators felt disposed to trust him implicitly; the next to rid themselves of him — no very difficult thing to accomplish whilst they were in the Bittern’s Marsh.

Clarence and Burcham withdrew from the room as abruptly as they had entered it. If conscience had not taken the alarm, fear had. They felt it necessary to consult together.

As soon as she saw them depart Lady Kate Kepple commenced laughing hysterically. The dread of the present and recollections of the past were pressing upon her sensitive nature. She was already in the first stage of a brain fever.

‘Oh! my dear, kind lady!’ sobbed Susan, kneeling by the side of the old lounge on which the victim was seated. ‘Where will this all end?’

‘In death, perhaps,’ answered Miss Meredith, firmly; ‘but never in dishonour!’

‘Oh! that Goliah were here!’ said the humble friend.

More than one heart re-echoed the wish.

‘Things are beginning to look infernally ugly,’ observed Squire Burcham, when he and Clarence were seated in what the latter styled their own den — namely, a room on the lower floor of the martello tower.

‘Who could have thought that they would have been such fools. Murder is a very different affair from running off with two girls and persuading them into marriage! Once our wives, they could give no evidence against us.’

‘That,’ said his confederate, ‘is our chance of safety — the last plank circumstances throw out to us. We must cling to it or sink. I know Clara,’ he continued. ‘She is a true Meredith, and would feel as little remorse in hanging us as I should in bagging a snipe.’

‘Unless she bore one of our names,’ observed his friend.

‘Exactly so,’ said Clarence. ‘We must carry out our plans by any means — fair ones, if possible; if not, the girls will only have themselves to blame.’

His hearer nodded approval.

‘What troubles me now,’ continued the speaker, ‘is the fellow we picked up in Dinant. He must have heard every word of Clara’s accusation. Will he prove faithful to the end?’

‘Had we not better see him?’ asked Burcham.

‘Perhaps we had,’ answered Marsham, thoughtfully. ‘Were I convinced that he had the slightest idea of playing us falsely, some of the Marsh boys should soon settle the difficulty. It is the doubt that haunts me. The fellow appears infernally indifferent to everything; walks about the old tower as if he owned the place, and —’

The rest of the conversation was cut short by the subject of their conversation walking into the room and coolly taking a seat at the table. He was a man of middle height, strongly but not coarsely built, about forty years of age, with nothing very remarkable in his appearance, except the keen grey eyes, which expressed great resolution.

The two rich rascals drew themselves slightly up as if offended at the familiarity of the poor one.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you have not acted fairly by me.’

‘Why, we paid you!’ exclaimed Clarence.

‘Of course you did,’ replied the seaman; ‘such services are rarely given.’

‘What, then, do you complain of?’

‘Paid me for assisting you to carry off two young ladies who asked, as you assured me, nothing better than to fall into your hands; but not for murder — a very different affair. Do you suppose I am going to risk my neck within the compass of a halter, at such a price? Ridiculous! ‘

His hearers breathed freely. After all, it was merely a question of money, and they were well provided.

‘Name your terms,’ said Burcham.

‘I must have five hundred pounds more.’

‘Is that reasonable?’ demanded Clarence. ‘You have received two hundred pounds already.’

‘For coming with you from Dinant to the Bittern’s Marsh. You see I have learnt the name of the place, despite your cunning attempts to conceal it. Handsome pay, I acknowledge, for assisting you to bring two young ladies on shore. I have committed no other act for which the law can touch me. Take my offer, or reject it as you think fit.’

‘Why, what would you do?’

The question was put with a view of testing his intentions yet further.

‘Wash my hands of the whole affair,’ was the reply.

‘Rascal! would you betray us?’

The man laughed heartily.

‘And to whom should I betray you?’ he demanded: ‘Will you direct me where to find a magistrate in the Bittern’s Marsh, or officers to arrest you when I have obtained a warrant? You are neither of you very wise,’ he continued. ‘Still I give you credit for more judgment than that, I might try London, you will say. Tell me the names of the girls, give me the address of their family, and possibly I may think of it. Not that it would be of any great use, for if you are the fellows I take you for, it would be too late. The game will be played out.’

The reasoning of the speaker was boldly put, nor did it detract from its value that it was insolent as well as convincing.

‘You are completely in our power. The boys of the Marsh are devoted to me.’

‘Not so completely as you suppose,’ answered the fellow, carelessly. ‘There are three or four gallows birds below anxious to fly to America. Probably they were on board the barge when — you understand. Now I wish to cross the ocean, too. We have had some talk over the affair. I don’t think, even at your bidding, they would commit a second murder.’

The two gentleman rascals consulted together in a whisper.

‘Not so dangerous as I expected,’ said Clarence. ‘A mere petty larceny rogue. His object, to obtain more money.’

‘Yes, pay him; pay him,’ replied Burcham. It is hard, though I shall feel more at ease when I know they are on the other side of the Atlantic.’

The last suggestion prevailed.

‘Hark you, my man,’ said the former, ‘when we engaged your services neither my friend nor myself anticipated the contingency you have alluded to, and perhaps it is only fair that your recompense should be increased. Pity you urged it so offensively. You might have trusted to our liberality.’

‘And been cast aside like a soiled glove when you had no further use for me,’ replied the mutineer, scornfully.

‘Well, well,’ chimed in the squire, who began to feel a little nervous, ‘we will overlook your insolence. All we require is to be assured of your fidelity. That is the important point.’

‘And yet you huckster over it like petty traders,’ observed Smith, lowering his tone, for he saw that the money would be forthcoming. ‘I will deal more frankly by you than you have dealt by me. In three weeks time I must be in America, far beyond reach of English law and English lawyers. The whole country will soon be ringing with my name.’

‘Rather a common one, I believe,’ observed Marsham with a sneer.

‘Perhaps it is,’ replied the former in a tone of indifference, ‘but some rather uncommon men have borne it. I am not ashamed of it. Enough of name,’ he continued. ‘Accept my offer; or reject it; the choice lies with you. I can be staunch as a bloodhound to my promise, but then I must have my price.’

Walking back to the table, the speaker assisted himself to a second glass of liquor, and stood quietly awaiting the decision.

The money was paid, and confidence, to all appearance, restored.

‘The Crofter’s Cottage’, Edwin Ellis (1842-95)

As our readers may suppose, the motley inhabitants of the Bittern’s Marsh were not very particular in the choice of materials for their habitations, most of which, apart from the martello tower, were constructed of the trunks of trees dragged from the pools of stagnant waters, or, where these were scanty, of rough, unhewn stones, fragments of boulders, patched out with broken planks, and the interstices filled with mud or clay. Around these wretched abodes a plot of cultivated ground might occasionally be seen, with a few sickly-looking vegetables striving to pierce through the mass of weeds stifling their growth.

The owner of one of these wretched huts was Sarah Sawter, the former servant of the widow Gob. We call her the owner from the fact that her worthless husband owned nothing but his worthless self. She was a tall, masculine-looking woman, strongly built, sharp of tongue, and capable ot thrashing both Tim and his sons, although, to do her justice, it was only in extreme cases that she exercised her strength.

Soon after the arrival of Sarah in the Marsh a hard contest commenced between herself and the man with whom she had united her fortune for life, for the mastery. Pluck and resolution finally prevailed. In little more than a year Tom Sawter gave in, and the supremacy of his wife was sullenly acknowledged. Occasionally some outbreak might occur, but it was sternly suppressed, and she brought up her children as she pleased.

As her sons grew up towards manhood they became deeply attached to her; to
them her words were like oracles, which, if not always believed in, were rarely disputed. If Burk and Ben — the names of the boys — drank with their father, they always sided with their mother in all home disputes.

One trait will give the key to Sarah Sawter’s character better, perhaps, than a page of description. On one occasion, as hostilities were about to commence between her husband and herself, the lads gave unmistakable indications of siding with the latter.

‘Stand aside!’ she exclaimed. ‘Have you forgotten he is your father?’

It was the last serious contest with her drunken husband that Sarah Sawter had occasion to engage in. Tim was not only whipped but subdued in spirit when his sons turned against, him — he, to use a sporting phrase, ‘threw up the sponge.’ Grumblings might, perhaps, have occurred occasionally at intervals afterwards, and threats of what he would do; but the grumblings died away harmless as the echoes of distant thunder, and the threats were disregarded.

The whole family were seated around the clean but rough deal table, on which stood a lamp filled with fish oil and a mesh made of dried bullrush. The supper, by no means a plenteous one, had long been concluded. The hour was getting late, yet still the inmates of the hut lingered at the table. Some project of interest was evidently under discussion.

‘I don’t like the looks on it,’ observed the mistress of the place. ‘What can they want wi’ a parson at the tower? Never heard of sich a thing afore. The master ain’t agoin to get married agin. I spose he haint sich an old fool as that.’

In the Marsh they always spoke of Theophilis Blackmore as the master.

Her sons grinned at the idea.

‘What is it to us what he wants un for,’ demanded the husband, in as loud a tone as he thought it prudent to assume, ‘since he pays well?’

‘And we are out of bread, mother,’ observed the oldest son.

‘The last bone of the old goat has been picked,’ added the youngest.

‘There are wuss things than hard fare,’ replied the woman, sadly, ‘though it be bad enough — the gaol and the law.’

‘It shall be as you say, mother,’ said the young men.

‘If it were only to guide the parson and his clerk from Deerhurst through the swamp to the tower, I should not so much mind; it’s what they may tempt ʼee to afterward. Still if —’

The rest of her speech was cut short by a loud knocking at the door. In an instant all was silent in the lonely abode.

The signal was repeated, but no one offered to stir.

‘Marcy on us!’ whispered Sarah, who can it be? So near on mornin’ too.’

‘Tramps — marsh birds like oursels,’ replied her husband; ‘but we ha’ naught for ’em. We be half clammed oursels. I’ll start ʼem.’

Walking to the door he drew aside the bar, when two men, evidently greatly fatigued, clad in rags almost as wretched as the speaker’s, made their way into the room. The youngest one sank exhausted upon the settle.

‘Don’t you know me, Sarah?’ asked the elder of the two wayfarers.

Mrs. Sawter caught up the lamp and held it close to his face, whilst Burk and Ben, her sons, stood quietly prepared for anything that might occur.

‘Marcy on us!’ exclaimed their mother. ‘Master Goliah, be it really you?’

The name explained something to the boys; but not everything. They could not understand why the well.-dressed, good-looking young farmer, whom they had frequently seen, and been taught to respect, should come to their miserable dwelling in such a plight, and at so late an hour.

No wonder they gazed upon him with surprise; but it was without any feeling of hostility. The grateful woman threw an additional armful of wood upon the hearth, and produced another bottle of spirits upon the table.

Her husband began to eye it eagerly.

‘O! Master Goliah,’ she said, ‘if your dear good mother could see you in these rags it would break her poor heart. Where did yer get ʼem?’

‘Out of her garret,’ replied her visitor with a grin. ‘Mother gied ʼem to I.’

As Sarah did not quite believe this statement she made no reply.

‘I tell ʼee she did,’ added the speaker; ‘and look, I hev fayther’s pistols as well, an’ you know the store she set on ʼem. She told I to come here.’

‘Here! to the Marsh? Here, amongst thieves, and worse?’ exclaimed the mistress of the house, who had recognised the weapons. ‘O! what have yer done?’

‘Nothink, as I knows on.’

Sarah shook her head.

Goliah knew that he might trust her, but doubted the prudence of doing so before her husband and her sons. Looking her earnestly in the face, he remarked that he would tell her all by-and-by. The woman understood him.

‘You. might trust in my boys,’ she whispered, ‘but not in their father. I have kept them honest. Tim will soon be drunk; it was partly for that I placed the bottle of liquor on the table.’

In less than an hour the prediction was verified, and a series of explanations ensued, and some schemes suggested, in which Burk and Ben pledged their assistance.

So satisfied were the two wanderers with the result that they consented to accept the only bed the wretched place afforded. Goliah did so on William’s account more than his own; for, as he said, he could sleep anywhere.

When Tim Sawter awoke from his debauch in the morning he called loudly for his boots and his coat, which had disappeared.

‘Useless to search for them,’ observed his wife. ‘The boys have taken ʼem.’

‘Taken ʼem?’

‘Yes; they started at daybreak for Deerhurst to find the parson and guide him through the Marsh to the old tower.’

Tim cursed loudly; swore that he would break every bone in their skin when they returned. Did they mean to rob him of his perkesites?

Sarah smiled contemptuously. She had no fears for her sons. As for their father, he was effectually a prisoner in the Bittern’s Marsh; to go out barefoot was an impossibility, and he had not even a pair of slippers to attempt it in. Such luxuries were unknown in the miserable den he called home.

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes and Further Reading

  • Metafiction: See for example, David Henry Lowenkron, “The Metanovel,” College English 38.4, Dec. 1976 (343-355).
  • Sydney Punch image reprinted in Shattock, J (ed.) Journalism and the Periodical Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain (CUP, 2017).
  • Elzivers [sic]: Must refer to the House of Elzevir, Dutch publisher of the 18th and 19th centuries: “The duodecimo series of ‘Elzevirs’ became very famous and very desirable among bibliophiles, who sought to obtain the tallest and freshest copies of these tiny books” (Wikipedia).


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