Mystery of the Marsh

J.F. Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh — Thirtieth instalment

Did anyone notice, ages ago, the noble Bunce occasionally nip over to Hearst’s farm at Deerhurst to court the farmer’s pretty daughter Susan — even trying to steal a kiss one time — before coming onside and making himself useful as an occasional lookout for her and Goliah while they canoodled in Mrs Hearst’s garden? This was the kiss Susan rewarded him with when he revealed his true identity in the martello tower last instalment (Ch. 29.1).

Bunce disappears from the reader’s view after rescuing the two girls in the red barn (Chs 2 and 3), and Susan doesn’t mention him until the scene in which Willie and Goliah have to appear in court, accused of stealing the mare (Chs 6 and 7). Bunce’s must certainly have been that “sure hand” to which Susan entrusted a letter to Lawyer Whiston, who consequently arrived in time to save the day for the two young men.

This is the letter to which Lawyer Whiston refers in Chapter 7, complimenting the presence of mind and courage Susan displayed sending it to him via a certain “ragged messenger” — Bunce. Thanks to his meeting with Bunce, the lawyer recognizes his quality, takes him under his wing, and sends him on his surveillance mission to Dinant and Bitterns’ Marsh. (Muddying the waters, Susan writes a further letter to William in London, warning him that Benoni has gone there as well, intending, she believes, some treachery or other. This one she hands to Goliah to deliver, during the wedding at Deerhurst in Chapter 12.)

My point is that none of Bunce’s acts in the interest of Susan’s affairs — and indeed out of an interest in Susan herself — are unfolded ‘onstage’, but rather, in a narrative shadow or blind-spot, only to be explained at the crucial instant in Chapter 29. I wonder whether the reader may have a right to feel to some extent gypped by such tricks of authorial deception? Others may, to the contrary, find themselves quite enjoying Smith’s chicanery and unconventional plotting. The counterfeit Smith/Bunce’s declared attraction to Susan, via faintly lascivious double entendres, makes complete sense as a form of “reverse foreshadowing” that points us back to those shady events — to an entire rivalry between Bunce and Goliah for Susan’s affections that never actually happened in the text!

A further theme, bubbling beneath the surface, becomes explicit in this chapter and warrants some context in our digital age. Who would have picked Smith as a condoner of biblioclasm? — yet we witness a flagrant, cathartic demonstration to this effect here in Chapter 30. Twice Smith’s narrator has referred to the schoolmaster, Theophilus Blackmore, this “one loved by God” (see commentary at the beginning of Chapter 21), as “the old bookworm” (Ch. 12) and “the aged bookworm” (Ch. 21). He is characterized as a bibliomaniac, an obsessive lover of precious books, but of nothing or nobody else. Life for him is “a mathematical problem, which, once solved, could have no further interest for him” (Ch. 12). Of course, he becomes an instrument in Lady Allworth’s dastardly plot to ensnare Lady Kate.

Smith’s scheme of compound binary oppositions would seem to counterpose “old Theo” (Ch. 12) against young William in the question of the moral worth of books. William’s pursuits at university are depicted as healthy and upright; indeed, as a means to reform a decadent society, the way to a better national future. On the other hand, Theo’s love for books is a love for the things-in-themselves, his opusculum on his “beloved Horace” (Ch. 19) a mere manic derivative.

Bookworms are generally considered unhealthy types: immersing themselves in books at the expense of the reality, the fresh air and roses under their very noses (in this they have been replaced by mobile phone users, perhaps). Libraries, unhealthy dark, dank and musty places, give rise to parasitic lifeforms. Not lightly did Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) define literature as the “occupation of idlers” (well, actually, it was lightly). However, the biblioclasts par excellence are surely the bookworms themselves; that is, the vehicle of the metaphorical bookworm: the bugs-in-themselves.

What of the actual creature, the bookworm; have any among us ever seen one? For centuries the organism has lurked in the dark, snugly insulated in the pages of a closed book, invisible to prying eyes. Many people have given little credit to the possibility of their real existence.

If we turn to our Aristotle, however, we will find reference to what he considered must be one of the tiniest creatures in existence, called the acarus, which is small and white. “In books,” the philosopher writes, “there are others … and they are like scorpions without a tail.” Subsequently, many books of Aristotle have been found perforated.

Acarus cheyletus, order acaridae

A hundred years earlier, in the 5th-century BC, Evenus  composed an epigram:

Pest of the Muses, devourer of pages, in crannies that lurkest,
Fruits of the muses to taint, labor of learnings to spoil;
Wherefore, oh, black-fleshed worm!
Wert thou born for the evil thou workest?
Wherefore thine own foul form shapest thou, with envious toil?

(Qtd. in O’Conor)

Notice that, unlike Aristotle’s, Evenus’ mite is black. Research reveals several forms and varieties, classified and unclassified.

One day hard at work, the German doctor, botanist and sinologist Christianus Mentzelius (1622-1701) heard a loud screeching, crowing noise. Looking around, bewildered, thinking that it was a neighbour’s rooster, he noticed on his writing paper:

a little insect that ceased not to carol like very chanticleer  until, taking a magnifying glass, I assiduously observed him. He is about the bigness of a mite and carries a gray crest, and the head low-bowed over the bosom; as to his crowing noise it comes of his clashing his wings against each other with an incessant din.

(Qtd. in O’Conor)

The insect is much less tedious than its human counterpart is popularly considered, and no wonder it is thought by some to be a myth. Among seven terrifying varieties researched in his Facts about Bookworms: Their History in Literature and Work in Libraries, O’Conor describes the Attagenus Pellio larva as “Long, slender, salmon-colored” and the shape of a graceful miniature whale. The Lepisma saccharina is small, brown, and cone-shaped, with “three thick tails,” and as rapid as “a flash of light.” The Dermestes lardarius is similar to a “microscopic hedgehog, bristling all over with rough black hairs.”

Lepisma saccharina

In 1665 Robert Hook, inventor of the microscope, described the first bookworm observed scientifically as “a small, white, silver shining worm or moth […] found much conversant among books and papers […] which corrodes and eats holes thro’ the leaves and covers. Its head appears big and blunt and its body tapers from it toward the tail smaller and smaller, being shaped almost like a carrot,” with three tails and two horns growing from its head; and it makes small round holes in books and covers.

In his Enemies of Books (1888), Blades discusses the Bestia audax, which was like a chamelion, in seeming to offer a different size and shape to however many observers beheld it. It was microscopic and “wriggling on the learned page,” but when discovered it instantaneously “stiffened out into the resemblance of a streak of dirt.”

As O’Conor writes:

A strange truth it is, that the same material that supplies food for the spiritual intellect of man should also supply food for one of the tiniest creatures in God’s creation.

They may be found, he asserts, in any quality or era of book, generally without respect to genre, from black-letter legal texts, through the classics, leather-bound folios of Plutarch and Dante, to Hauy’s ponderous Treatise on Mineralogy. Novels, however, are safest, being opened more frequently than scholarly tomes.

Their damage is manifold as the form of the creatures themselves:

I have five volumes of Hauy’s Mineralogy, Paris, 1801, before me now, and scarcely a page of the five volumes is intact. Very often there are deep channels cut into the book, irregular in outline, and these channels will be longer or shorter, and across the width or length of the book. Some pages will be slightly perforated; on others there will be several furrows separated by spaces untouched.

Bookworm found crushed in the Mineralogy of Hauy

Blades relates Peignot’s well-known account of a bookworm that pierced a continuous straight line through twenty-seven standing volumes. Such a prodigy, we might imagine, would be entirely at home alongside Blades’s worm of infinite chameleonic form, and the one that moves at the speed of light, in a library replete with Borges, Calvino, or even Castaneda.


CHAPTER THIRTY

Suspense — Things Not Quite so Dark as They Were, but Still Very Gloomy — Friends — A Brave Girl’s Resolution

There are few things more trying to the human nerve than the pause which precedes action — the torturing suspense which sometimes appals more than actual danger. The first feeling of the prisoners, on discovering that a friend was near them, undoubtedly was that of hope. On his departure the cold fear, the sickening despondency, returned with redoubled force, gradually creeping over them, till the interview with Bunce seemed almost a dream. Yet there were the pistols in the hands of Clara Meredith, the food he assured them they might partake of, and old Nance ready to wait upon them.

Clara was the first to recover something like self-command. She carefully examined the weapons, placed, as it were, by Providence in her grasp, and once satisfied they were charged, pressed them gratefully to her lips.

She knew that her fate was in her own hands.

‘Aye,’ said Nance, who was still in the chamber and stood watching her movements closely, ‘you may well kiss them, lady; they were the gift of as true a friend as ever a woman in her hour of peril might wish; for in parting with them my poor boy left himself defenceless.’

‘I recollect. He told us you were his nurse — his second mother — that we might trust you,’ answered Miss Meredith. ‘We can only pray for him. I will not despair,’ she added, with a flash of returning spirit. ‘God is too just, too merciful, to permit a noble heart to perish in protecting two helpless girls from misery and shame.’

‘I have no time to pray,’ observed Nance, ‘and if I had, I have almost forgotten how. My prayer must be in action. Hark! they are calling for me. You may partake of the food in perfect confidence,’ she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. ‘I prepared it with my own hands. Again; they are getting impatient. I must descend. Heaven watch over and assist us.’

With these words she quitted the room.

Clara walked with an air of self-deliberation to the rude bench on which sat her cousin, whom terror rendered little more than a passive spectator of what had taken place, and seated herself beside her. Throwing her arms around her, she kissed her fondly, and uttered many endearing, soothing expressions.

‘Kate, darling,’ she whispered, ‘we must be firm — the crisis is at hand. I have a hope, almost a conviction, that we shall be saved. Hush, dearest—no cry of joy; the hope may fail us — the conviction prove a delusion; but, at the worst, we are armed against dishonour.’

The speaker showed the weapons so unexpectedly obtained.

‘And yet,’ she added, ‘it is hard to die so young and so beloved.’

‘No,’ exclaimed Kate, who caught the meaning of her words, ‘a thousand times No! Better death than —’

The shudder that shook her delicate frame — the look of agony in her soft blue eyes — explained what words were wanting to express.

Again her cousin kissed her.

‘You would forgive me, then?’ she whispered.

‘Forgive, and bless you,’ answered the excited girl. ‘Dear, good noble Clara! you promise me, by the sisterly love between us, our sweet companionship — the ties of blood which bind us — you will kill me? Promise me? Let not that wretch triumph over my girlish weakness. Promise me — promise me ‘ she added, imploringly, ‘or give me the weapon!’

‘I dare not trust you with it,’ answered her cousin. ‘You are too impressionable, too easily excited. At the last moment only, should I feel justified in using it. Should it arrive — which I trust and pray it never may — rest assured of this, that villain, Clarence, shall clasp no living  victim.’

Kate repaid her for the promise by a fond embrace.

‘O, that Goliah were here!’ sobbed Susan. It was about the twentieth time she had, since their imprisonment, uttered the wish. ‘But it is like the men,’ she added, ‘out of the way when they are really wanted, and never in the way when they might be useful.’

Under ordinary circumstances the observation might, perhaps, have had some truth in it, but our readers are already aware, in the present instance, how little it was merited. Her faithful lover was nearer to her than she suspected.

For a considerable time the speakers remained listening, with strained attention, for any sound that indicated the approach of their oppressors. They presented a sad picture— three pale, frightened girls, upon whose haggard features the light of the lamp suspended from the ceiling streamed with a weird glare. Suddenly Susan quitted the side of her companions, and walking to the table, on which the still untasted food remained, secured a sharp-pointed knife, which she concealed beneath the folds of her dress.

‘I, too, am armed,’ she whispered to Clara Meredith, as she rejoined them.

A voice was heard below, followed by a laugh, words of congratulation, and the closing of a door. The hearts of the listeners beat violently. Bunce had returned with the clergyman and his clerk. The former proved to be a tall, thin man, swarthy almost as a Moor, dressed in a suit of professional black, wearing a wig known as a Brown George at the time, and a huge, white cravat, tied in an ostentatious bow; the latter, a powerful, broad-shouldered man in horn-rimmed spectacles. He, too, wore a wig, like his superior.

‘The Reverend Joseph Sly, and Mr. Fustian, his clerk,’ said their guide, who introduced them formally to his employers.’

Clarence and the squire shook them warmly by the hand.

‘And who are these?’ demanded the former, pointing to two young men who had followed the anxiously looked-for visitors to the tower.

‘The sons of the woman at whose house I discovered the reverend gentleman, who fancies he has been tracked through the Marsh,’ answered Bunce. ‘He insisted on their coming. I scarcely knew what to do; at last I concluded to bring them with me — not that I believe in any danger.’

‘I can answer for them,’ said Theophilus Blackmore. ‘Their father is the most staunch man engaged m the enterprise. I can always rely upon Tim Sawter.’

This, of course, proved so highly satisfactory that not only were the boys welcomed, but Bunce was commended for his prudence and forethought.

‘And where is Benoni?’ inquired the schoolmaster.

‘I left him at Sawter’s hut,’ answered the messenger, ‘ready to bring us warning if at any time strangers should be seen endeavouring to penetrate the mazes of the Bitterns’ Marsh.’

‘Got over your jealousy?’ observed the squire.

‘It was never very strong.’ said the pretended lover of the pretty Susan, laughingly. ‘I flatter myself, however, she will be glad to see me. As you observed, he is but a boy.’

The rest of the band were now called in. They numbered eleven in all, including their employers. The table had been previously spread with food and spirits in abundance; the last was rarely wanting at the repast of the smugglers.

Clarence Marsham looked at his watch.

‘Now, boys,’ he said, ‘enjoy yourselves; but mind, no excess. We have just one hour before proceeding to business. As soon as our reverend friend here has tied the knot — made myself and friend here happy husbands — all you will have to do is to escort us to the vessel in the creek. Once on board, you shall all of you receive additional proofs of my liberality.’

At this there was a general cheer.

‘Aye, aye,’ averred Bilk, ‘we can always tell a true gentleman cove.’

‘When he behaves as sich,’ added Pike. ‘I thinks we ought to drink the health of the ʼappy bridegrooms.’

‘Not bridegrooms yet,’ suggested Burcham.

‘But very soon will be,’ replied the proposer of the toast, with a knowing wink.

The health was drunk amid the clattering of glasses and cheers of the men, who called for more liquor to do honour to it a second time.

Clarence Marsham began to feel a little uneasy.

‘These fellows will soon be drunk,’ he whispered in the ear of Bunce, ‘at the rate they are going on. What is to be done?’

The former reflected for a few instants, then answered, in the same undertone:

‘Give them coffee.’

‘Will they drink it?’

‘With brandy in it,’ replied the trusted counsellor. ‘Yes, I can answer for that. The Frenchmen, who bring their goods to the north, have taught them how to brew a gloria, as they call it. They like it.’

‘Go and order it, then.’

Bunce quitted the room. Returning in a few minutes, he nodded to Clarence, to intimate that all was right, and resumed his seat beside him.

Once more the brutal revelry ran high, jests were passed, which we will not sully our pages by repeating. In this saturnalia another half hour passed. The gentlemen rascals began to feel impatient of the degrading associations. Not that their morals were offended. It was their taste.

They both rose at the same instant.

‘Keep your seats, boys,’ said Burcham; ‘the ceremony above will not detain us long. We shall soon be back.’

‘Cut it short!’ shouted one half-muddled wretch.

‘Bring the gals with you!’ suggested a second. ‘We want to get a peep at ʼem!’

As the conspirators quitted the room they encountered Nance with the coffee.

When Marsham and the squire entered the chamber of the prisoners, followed by Bunce, the clergyman and his clerk, they found Clara and Lady Kate far more composed than they expected. They saw that their protector was with them. The last few hours had given them hope, and hope is the nurse of courage as well as of life.

‘I have kept my word,’ observed Clarence, addressing his victim. ‘All that the most scrupulous delicacy can ask has been complied with. I bring an ordained clergyman of the Church of England with me to celebrate our union. Consent, I implore you. A life of devotion and tenderness shall prove the depth of my love. Your slightest wish shall be a law to me. Offer no useless resistance,’ he added; ‘our fates are irrevocably doomed to be one.

‘In the grave, perhaps,’ replied Kate, with more firmness than might have been anticipated after the agitation she had undergone; ‘but even there my corpse would shrink in  horror from your side. Villain! assassin! man without manhood! never shall my lips pronounce the words that would unite us!’

The ruffian was about to advance, when the Reverend Mr. Joseph Sly placed his hand upon his arm.

‘Allow me,’ he whispered, hoarsely, ‘to reason with the lady.’

‘Be brief. I know it will be useless.’

‘As to your threats.’ exclaimed the pretended clergyman, tearing off the hideous brown wig and huge cravat that disfigured him, ‘advance one step, touch her but with a look, and I will rend your false heart from its foul hiding-place! Wretch!’ he continued, ‘your plans have been deeply laid — wealth freely spent to compass the destruction of this pure and innocent victim, not of your passion — unless interest may be termed one — but of your avarice. Fool as well as wretch! God never sleeps. The humble instruments of His justice have found you!’

Kate looked bewildered. The swarthy features of the speaker brought no recollection; but the voice did. ‘With, a cry resembling that of the scared bird torn by the fierce vulture from its nest, she threw herself upon his manly breast, and clung there as to her home — to safety.

The dastardly conspirators saw that, for the moment, their scheme was defeated. With an expression of rage they rushed to the door of the chamber, dashed madly down the stairs, calling on their accomplices below to assist them.

No sooner had they disappeared than Bunce commenced barricading the door, dragging the heavy furniture against it, the clerk — who proved to be no other than our readers old acquaintance, Goliah — the three girls, and the two Sawter lads, lending their assistance.

It was but a frail barrier. Still it afforded time.

The brave fellow who had so skilfully conducted the enterprise had still another hope. When all that human forethought could accomplish had been done, he pressed his ear to the door to listen.

‘Alas! I am unarmed,’ observed our hero, sadly.

Clara Meredith placed the pistols silently in his hands. He offered one to his companion.

‘Keep one, Willie,’ said the honest fellow. ‘I beant much used to such things, but I can hit unmarcifully hard.’

Susan, who, since the recognition of her lover, had been laughing and crying hysterically, showed him her knife.

‘Keep it,’ he repeated; ‘keep it. A kiss would do I more good nor a dozen knives.’

The favour thus modestly hinted at was complied with.

The expression of doubt, hope, fear, in the face of Bunce became intense. One moment oaths, execrations, bitter threats, fell upon his ear. Gradually a faint smile stole over his features. Addressing his companions, he said:

‘I think we are saved — for the present.’

Again he applied his ear to the door.

‘Yes, I feel certain of it. She never failed me yet. It has been a terrible risk, though.’

The voice of Nance was heard demanding admittance.

‘Has it succeeded?’ asked her foster son.

‘Perfectly,’ was the reply. And instantly he commenced to unbar the door.

‘All but the master and his employers are helpless as the infant at its mother’s breast,’ said the woman. ‘I drugged the coffee as I promised. Heaven grant I did not place too much in it. Bad as they are, I would not have their deaths upon my soul.’

‘I would,’ observed Goliah; ‘and think no more on it than killing so many rats or any other varmint.’

Cautiously the speakers made their way to the room below, ready to retreat in case of an attack, but no attack was made. The wretched hirelings lay perfectly senseless, motionless, as if the final sleep had fallen upon them. Clarence, the squire and schoolmaster had quitted the tower.

‘Their hearts still beat,’ observed Bunce, after placing his hand upon the breast of each.

‘Thank Heaven!’ murmured Nance.

Goliah did not seem to feel quite so well satisfied.

‘They must be removed,’ observed the speaker; ‘in a few hours, like torpid vipers, they will recover both their venom and their strength, and we are too few to master them. The danger, alas, is not over yet. The master will cause the desperate inhabitants of the Marsh to attack the place. They will obey him. You do not know how much energy he is capable of.’

This suggestion was too prudent not to be complied with. With the exception of Pike and Bilk, the sleepers were carried out of the tower and placed close to the Druid’s Stone. The former were reserved for a different fate.

In searching the vaults for a secure place to confine them in, Bunce and Goliah discovered an old iron culverin which the government of the day had not thought it worthwhile to remove. With no inconsiderable: amount of labor they dragged it from its hiding-place, and, finally got it in position so as to command the approach from the Marsh.

The first difficulty vanquished, a second, presented itself. They had plenty of ammunition to charge it with, but not a single ball.

‘Everything seems against us,’ murmured the former.

The Bookworm (c.1850), Carl Spitzweg  (1808–1885). Source: Wiki Commons

‘I don’t know that,’ said Goliah, who, since he had found the pretty Susan, appeared to be endowed with an increase of intelligence. ‘Wait you just here. I’ll find summat.’

He proved as good as his word. In a very short time the honest fellow returned laden with the heavy brass clasps which he had ruthlessly torn from the antique bindings of Theophilus Blackmore’s fondly cherished volumes — Elzevirs, Aldines, and tomes that might have been the pride of any biblomaniac. Worse than all, he had discovered the old man’s manuscript notes on Horace, the labor of a life, cherished as the apple of his eye — the opusculum which was to hand down his name to admiring posterity.

‘If these aint enough,’ he observed, as he poured out the contents of his pockets before his companion, ‘ I can get plenty more. The old fellow left a mort o’ books behind him.’

Bunce smiled. He saw that the vandalism of Goliah had been made a work of retribution.

‘There,’ said the latter, ramming the precious commentaries on Horace into the culverin, by way of wadding, ‘ I don’t think they will swallow that easy, and if they does it won’t agree with ʼem. My eyes ached to look on it.’

‘I believe,’ replied his friend, ‘they may find it difficult of digestion.’

As the last arrangement was completed our hero joined the speakers. The Sawter boys were with him.

‘Can I not assist you?’ he asked. ‘I have some strength left — would that it were equal to my will!’

‘I wish it were,’ observed Bunce; ‘But as it is not, you must be content to remain with the ladies. Leave the rougher work to us. I should feel much more confident,’ he added, ‘if I were certain the piece was in correct position.’

‘And I have not the strength to raise it,’ observed Willie, ‘or I might aid you.’

‘It be all that cussed varsity,’ muttered Gohiah. ‘What is the use of sich places?’

The culverin was drawn back to enable the pale strident to run his eye along the sight. He at once discovered that the charge must pass over the heads of their enemies if they ventured to approach. The position was soon rectified.

‘I am satisfied,’ he said, ‘it will sweep their lines like a hailstorm.’

‘And wi’ mighty hard drops, too,’ observed Goliah. ‘There be all the fixin’s of old master’s books in the gun.’

The Sawter boys, Burk and Beni, now joined them, and the five men formed the only garrison of the lone tower. Not an eye was closed. All watched. Not only their own lives, but, what was far more precious, the honour of the beings they loved was at stake.

Everything passed quietly till the first faint rays of light began to gild the horizon. Slowly and with difficulty they appeared to disperse the mist which, like a dense fog, hung over the Bittern’s Marsh.

William Whiston was the first to perceive a dark figure creeping in front of the Druid’s Stone. For an instant he thought his vision had deceived him, but soon a second one appeared, and together they stood reconnoitering the martello tower.

Noiselessly he imparted the warning to his companions.

‘They think we are sleeping,’ whispered Bunce.

‘Clarence knows better than that,’ replied our hero, in the same undertone. ‘Hate never sleeps. I read it in his eyes, and he in mine. Mark my words,’ he added, ‘the meeting will be fatal to one or both of us.’

‘Will it?’ thought Goliah. ‘Not if I can help it.’

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest


Notes and References

  • Flaubert: In his Dictionary of Received Ideas (1911-13); compiled from notes he made in the 1870s.
  • chanticleer: domestic rooster.
  • culverin: ‘[…] a medieval cannon, adapted for use by the French as the “couleuvrine” (from couleuvre “grass snake”) in the 15th century, and later adapted for naval use by the English in the late 16th century.’ Wikipedia.
  • biblomaniac [sic]: bibliomaniac.
  • opusculum: opuscule; a minor literary or musical work.
  • mort: A great quantity or number. Webster.

Blades, W. (1888). The Enemies of Books, 2nd ed (London: Eliot Stock). Available free at Gutenberg.org. Jump to file.

*O’Conor, J.F.X (John Francis Xavier, 1852-1920) (1898). Facts about Bookworms: Their History in Literature and Work in Libraries (NY: Harper). Available free at Internet Archive. Jump to file.

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