The remainder of Chapter Twenty-nine reveals the identity of the visitor, whom the girls had thought ‘the unprincipled agent of their persecutors.’ Smith provides some of his own observations which bear upon our researches into points of nineteenth century law affecting women and marriage.
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE (Continued)
To the astonishment of the cousins they saw their companion in misfortune spring into the arms of the man whom they looked upon as the unprincipled agent of their persecutors, and press her lips to his swarthy cheeks.
‘She must be mad,’ thought Miss Meredith, ‘or has Heaven listened to our prayers?’
Susan disengaged herself from the embrace of the jailer, and, running to the sofa where Clara and Kate were sitting, fell upon her knees, sobbing and laughing alternately. Taking a hand of each, she exclaimed:
‘God has not abandoned us! You are too good to be made a prey by such villains, and I shall be saved by being with you. It is a friend — a true, honest friend; but, alas! he is alone, and our persecutors are, many.’
‘Goliah?’ whispered the ladies.
‘No,’ replied Susan, sadly, ‘but next to him, the best protector Heaven could send us. It is the same who risked his life for Lady Kate in the Red Barn. Dear, good, generous Bunce! Hush,’ she added, ‘let not a look, a cry of joy escape you; recollect he is alone — our last hope. The wretches below might overhear it.’
Thus breathlessly, and not very coherently, did the speaker impress upon her fellow prisoners the necessity of suppressing all outward signs of joy at the faint prospect of deliverance dawning before them. It was but one friend, and their enemies were many.
It was true, every word that the speaker uttered. Nobly had the grateful friend of Willie performed the task Lawyer Whiston assigned him. Closely disguised, he had gone twice to Dinant, where he acted the part of a reckless adventurer so skilfully that he attracted first the attention and afterwards the confidence of Clarence Marsham and Burcham, whose fits of alternate trust and mistrust more than once placed his life in danger.
The conspirators against the honor and happiness of the cousins kept the place where they expected to find their victims a secret to themselves. It was not till the little vessel hired to convey them to the coast of England was about to start that Bunce knew, for a certainty, that it was the Bitterns’ Marsh, and wrote the first hasty words to his. employer which set the avengers upon the track.
‘We are saved!’ exclaimed Clara and Kate, hopefully.
Bunce — we shall drop the Smith — looked exceedingly grave.
‘Alas, not yet,’ he replied. ‘I am but one in this den of crime and misery. Speech and stay must both be brief. Soon as the shades of night begin to fall I leave the tower to guide the wretch who has consented to prostitute his sacred office by uniting you to your oppressors. For several, hours you will have no protector but Heaven and the purity of your own hearts.’
The lately formed hope failed as suddenly as it had risen.
‘Must you leave us?’ said Kate, despondingly.
‘I dare not refuse the task assigned me,’ answered the gallant fellow; ‘it would excite suspicion. Several times during the last two days my life has hung upon a thread.’
The voice of Clarence was heard at the foot of the stairs calling upon his supposed accomplice to descend. Those who heard it shuddered; the dark terror once more fell upon them.
‘I am coming!’ shouted Bunce, in reply to the summons. ‘You are too hasty. I am doing good work pointing out to the girls the hopelessness of their position, and doing a little courtship on my own account,’ he added, laughingly.
The summons was not renewed.
‘You may trust this woman,’ he whispered, ‘she was my nurse in childhood — a devoted friend, almost a mother to me. Eat anything she brings you, in confidence — perfect confidence. Without her assistance I should indeed despair.’
A step was heard ascending the stairs.
The speaker silently placed a pair of exquisitely mounted pistols in the hands of Miss Meredith. His keen perception of character told him he might place more reliance upon her presence of mind than on her cousin’s, and he hastened to intercept the intruder.
It proved to be Marsham.
‘Why did you remain so long in the chamber?’ he demanded, angrily.
‘Didn’t I tell you,’ answered Bunce, carelessly, ‘that I had been doing a little courtship on my own account? The girl I have taken a fancy to is not accustomed to your style of wooing. I think I shall win her,’ he added, ‘unless you spoil my chance with your ridiculous suspicious.’
‘Let him alone,’ said the squire, who was waiting at the bottom of the stairs and overhead every word that passed. ‘These alternate fits of doubt and confidence would weary the patience of a saint. I am satisfied with him.’
‘And so am I,’ observed Clarence, ‘but we cannot be too careful. Recollect how much depends on our success.’
Peace once more re-established between them, the speakers descended to the principal room in the building, where a last consultation was held before dispatching the messenger to conduct the Reverend Mr. Sly and his clerk from the hut in the Marsh to the tower to perform the unholy marriage — the seal of successful cupidity on one side, and misery and degradation upon the other. Some of our readers may probably ask if in religious, moral, critical England — so fond of detecting the mote in the eyes of their neighbours, so blind to the beam in their own — it is possible such a worthless character could be found?
We answer, unhesitatingly, yes.
Up to a late period in the reign of George the Third, notices might be seen hung out from the windows of taverns, and even more questionable places, that marriages were celebrated within by a clergyman of the Church of England. Even touters were employed to lure the unwary into the net.
Shame to the then existing laws, such unions were legal; and yet drivellers may be found who still prate of the good old times. With all their drawbacks, mad speculations, inordinate thirst for riches, tuft-hunting, æsthetics and other imbecilities, we prefer the modern ones.
Rarely had a scheme been more artfully planned, or recklessly carried out. The vessel which brought the conspirators to the Bittern’s Marsh lay in a narrow creek, ready to start at a moment’s notice, with the unwilling brides, to France — the six or seven ruffians in the tower devoted to their employers; only one defender of innocence and virtue, and even that one was unarmed, for Bunce had parted with his weapons. The odds appeared terribly against him, and yet we do not quite despair.
Heaven is above all.
Clarence and the squire ran over every point of their programme with the man whom they once more believed was devoted to their interests. Every contingency seemed guarded against.
‘Failure,’ exclaimed the former, in a tone of exultation, ‘is impossible. In a few hours we shall be the husbands of the richest heiresses in England.’
‘And will, doubtless, reward those who have assisted you handsomely,’ observed Bunce.
‘Cormorant,’ said the former, half playfully, ‘more money? Well! well! you shall have no reason to complain. It is time to depart.’
‘I am quite ready,’ replied the messenger, ‘although I still adhere to my opinion that it would be wiser to send some one else, or at least give me a companion; for I am but imperfectly acquainted with the Marsh and may lose my way.’
‘And whom would you select?’
‘Benoni Blackmore. He knows the place better than any one else,’ replied Bunce.
His employers indulged in a hearty laugh. ‘Jealous of a boy!’ they observed, ‘but be it as you wish. Take him with you. The pretty Susan may not thank you.’
‘Some boys are dangerous,’ said the man. ‘Better not throw temptation in any woman’s way.’
The shades of night were already settling over the Bitterns’ Marsh when the speaker, accompanied by the schoolmaster’s son, started on their lonely errand.
This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest
tuft-hunting: tuft-hunter: “one that seeks association with persons of title or high social status.” Merriam-Webster.
Categories: Mystery of the Marsh