Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 9

When Gerard and his friend quitted the convent they proceeded at a brisk pace, into the heart of the town. The streets were nearly empty; and with the exception of some occasional burst of brawl or merriment from a beer-shop, all was still. The chief street of Mowbray, called Castle Street after the ruins of the old baronial stronghold in its neighbourhood, was as significant of the present civilization of this community as the haughty keep had been of its ancient dependence. The dimensions of Castle Street were not unworthy of the metropolis: it traversed a great portion of the town, and was proportionately wide; its broad pavements and its blazing gas-lights indicated its modern order and prosperity; while on each side of the street rose huge warehouses, not as beautiful as the palaces of Venice, but in their way not less remarkable; magnificent shops; and here and there, though rarely, some ancient factory built among the fields in the infancy of Mowbray by some mill-owner not sufficiently prophetic of the future, or sufficiently confident in the energy and enterprise of his fellow-citizens, to foresee that the scene of his labours would be the future eye-sore of a flourishing posterity.

Pursuing their course along Castle Street for about a quarter of a mile, Gerard and Stephen turned down a street which intersected it, and so on, through a variety of ways and winding lanes, till they arrived at an open portion of the town, a district where streets and squares and even rows, disappeared, and where the tall chimneys and bulky barrack-looking buildings that rose in all directions, clustering yet isolated, announced that they were in the principal scene of the industry of Mowbray. Crossing this open ground they gained a suburb, but one of a very different description to that in which was situate the convent where they had parted with Sybil. This one was populous, noisy, and lighted. It was Saturday night; the streets were thronged; an infinite population kept swarming to and fro the close courts and pestilential cul-de-sacs that continually communicated with the streets by narrow archways, like the entrance of hives, so low that you were obliged to stoop for admission: while ascending to these same streets, from their dank and dismal dwellings by narrow flights of steps the subterraneous nation of the cellars poured forth to enjoy the coolness of the summer night, and market for the day of rest. The bright and lively shops were crowded; and groups of purchasers were gathered round the stalls, that by the aid of glaring lamps and flaunting lanthorns, displayed their wares.

"Come, come, it's a prime piece," said a jolly looking woman, who was presiding at a stall which, though considerably thinned by previous purchasers, still offered many temptations to many who could not purchase.

"And so it is widow," said a little pale man, wistfully.

"Come, come, it's getting late, and your wife's ill; you're a good soul, we'll say fi'pence a pound, and I'll throw you the scrag end in for love."

"No butcher's meat to-morrow for us, widow," said the man.

"And why not, neighbour? With your wages, you ought to live like a prize-fighter, or the mayor of Mowbray at least."

"Wages!" said the man, "I wish you may get 'em. Those villains, Shuffle and Screw, have sarved me with another bate ticket: and a pretty figure too."

"Oh! the carnal monsters!" exclaimed the widow. "If their day don't come, the bloody-minded knaves!"

"And for small cops, too! Small cops be hanged! Am I the man to send up a bad-bottomed cop, Widow Carey?"

"You sent up for snicks! I have known you man and boy John Hill these twenty summers, and never heard a word against you till you got into Shuffle and Screw's mill. Oh! they are a bad yarn, John."

"They do us all, widow. They pretends to give the same wages as the rest, and works it out in fines. You can't come, and you can't go, but there's a fine; you're never paid wages, but there's a bate ticket. I've heard they keep their whole establishment on factory fines."

"Soul alive, but those Shuffle and Screw are rotten, snickey, bad yarns," said Mistress Carey. "Now ma'am, if you please; fi'pence ha'penny; no, ma'am, we've no weal left. Weal, indeed! you look very like a soul as feeds on weal," continued Mrs Carey in an under tone as her declining customer moved away. "Well, it gets late," said the widow, "and if you like to take this scrag end home to your wife neighbour Hill, we can talk of the rest next Saturday. And what's your will, sir?" said the widow with a stern expression to a youth who now stopped at her stall.

He was about sixteen, with a lithe figure, and a handsome, faded, impudent face. His long, loose, white trousers gave him height; he had no waistcoat, but a pink silk handkerchief was twisted carelessly round his neck, and fastened with a very large pin, which, whatever were its materials, had unquestionably a very gorgeous appearance. A loose frock-coat of a coarse white cloth, and fastened by one button round his waist, completed his habiliments, with the addition of the covering to his head, a high-crowned dark-brown hat, which relieved his complexion, and heightened the effect of his mischievous blue eye.

"Well, you need not be so fierce, Mother Carey," said the youth with an affected air of deprecation.

"Don't mother me," said the jolly widow with a kindling eye; "go to your own mother, who is dying in a back cellar without a winder, while you've got lodgings in a two pair."

"Dying; she's only drunk," said the youth.

"And if she is only drunk," rejoined Mrs Carey in a passion, "what makes her drink but toil; working from five o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock at night, and for the like of such as you."

"That's a good one," said the youth; "I should like to know what my mother ever did for me, but give me treacle and laudanum when I was a babby to stop my tongue and fill my stomach; by the token of which, as my gal says, she stunted the growth of the prettiest figure in all Mowbray." And here the youth drew himself up, and thrust his hands in the side pockets of his pea-jacket.

"Well, I never," said Mrs Carey. "No; I never heard a thing like that!"

"What, not when you cut up the jackass and sold it for veal cutlets, mother."

"Hold your tongue, Mr Imperence," said the widow. "It's very well known you're no Christian, and who'll believe what you say?"

"It's very well known that I'm a man what pays his way," said the boy, "and don't keep a huckster's stall to sell carrion by star-light; but live in a two pair, if you please, and has a wife and family, or as good."

"O! you aggravating imp!" exclaimed the widow in despair, unable to wreak her vengeance on one who kept in a secure position, and whose movements were as nimble as his words.

"Why, Madam Carey, what has Dandy Mick done to thee?" said a good-humoured voice, it came from one of two factory girls who were passing her stall and stopped. They were gaily dressed, a light handkerchief tied under the chin, their hair scrupulously arranged; they wore coral neck-laces and earrings of gold.

"Ah! is it you, my child," said the widow, who was a good-hearted creature. "The dandy has been giving me some of his imperence."

"But I meant nothing, dame," said Mick. "It was a joke,—only a joke."

"Well, let it pass," said Mrs Carey. "And where have you been this long time, my child; and who's your friend?" she added in a lower tone.

"Well, I have left Mr Trafford's mill," said the girl.

"That's a bad job," said Mrs Carey; "for those Traffords are kind to their people. It's a great thing for a young person to be in their mill."

"So it is," said the girl, "but then it was so dull. I can't stand a country life, Mrs Carey. I must have company."

"Well, I do love a bit of gossip myself," said Mrs Carey, with great frankness.

"And then I'm no scholar," said the girl, "and never could take to learning. And those Traffords had so many schools."

"Learning is better than house and land," said Mrs Carey; "though I'm no scholar myself; but then, in my time, things was different. But young persons—"

"Yes," said Mick; "I don't think I could get through the day, if it wurno' for our Institute."

"And what's that?" asked Mrs Carey with a sneer.

"The Shoddy-Court Literary and Scientific, to be sure," said Mick; "we have got fifty members, and take in three London papers; one 'Northern Star' and two 'Moral Worlds.'"

"And where are you now, child?" continued the widow to the girl.

"I am at Wiggins and Webster's," said the girl; "and this is my partner. We keep house together; we have a very nice room in Arbour Court, No. 7, high up; it's very airy. If you will take a dish of tea with us to-morrow, we expect some friends."

"I take it kindly," said Mrs Carey; "and so you keep house together! All the children keep house in these days. Times is changed indeed!"

"And we shall be happy to see you, Mick; and Julia, if you are not engaged;" continued the girl; and she looked at her friend, a pretty demure girl, who immediately said, but in a somewhat faultering tone, "Oh! that we shall."

"And what are you going to do now, Caroline?" said Mick.

"Well, we had no thoughts; but I said to Harriet, as it is a fine night, let us walk about as long as we can and then to-morrow we will lie in bed till afternoon."

"That's all well eno' in winter time with plenty of baccy," said Mick, "but at this season of the year I must have life. The moment I came out I bathed in the river, and then went home and dressed," he added in a satisfied tone; "and now I am going to the Temple. I'll tell you what, Julia has been pricked to-day with a shuttle, 'tis not much, but she can't go out; I'll stand treat, and take you and your friend to the Temple."

"Well, that's delight," said Caroline. "There's no one does the handsome thing like you, Dandy Mick, and I always say so. Oh! I love the Temple! 'Tis so genteel! I was speaking of it to Harriet last night; she never was there. I proposed to go with her—but two girls alone,—you understand me. One does not like to be seen in these places, as if one kept no company."

"Very true," said Mick; "and now we'll be off. Good night, widow."

"You'll remember us to-morrow evening," said Caroline. "To-morrow evening! The Temple!" murmured Mrs Carey to herself. "I think the world is turned upside downwards in these parts. A brat like Mick Radley to live in a two pair, with a wife and family, or as good as he says; and this girl asks me to take a dish of tea with her and keeps house! Fathers and mothers goes for nothing," continued Mrs Carey, as she took a very long pinch of snuff and deeply mused. "'tis the children gets the wages," she added after a profound pause, "and there it is."

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