Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 14

"Your wife is ill?" said Sybil.

"Very!" replied Warner's wife. "Our daughter has behaved infamously to us. She has quitted us without saying by your leave or with your leave. And her wages were almost the only thing left to us; for Philip is not like Walter Gerard you see: he cannot earn two pounds a-week, though why he cannot I never could understand."

"Hush, hush, wife!" said Warner. "I speak I apprehend to Gerard's daughter?"

"Just so."

"Ah! this is good and kind; this is like old times, for Walter Gerard was my friend, when I was not exactly as I am now."

"He tells me so: he sent a messenger to me last night to visit you this morning. Your letter reached him only yesterday."

"Harriet was to give it to Caroline," said the wife. "That's the girl who has done all the mischief and inveigled her away. And she has left Trafford's works, has she? Then I will be bound she and Harriet are keeping house together."

"You suffer?" said Sybil, moving to the bed-side of the woman; "give me your hand," she added in a soft sweet tone. "'Tis hot."

"I feel very cold," said the woman. "Warner would have the window open, till the rain came in."

"And you, I fear, are wet," said Warner, addressing Sybil, and interrupting his wife.

"Very slightly. And you have no fire. Ah! I have brought some things for you, but not fuel."

"If he would only ask the person down stairs," said his wife, "for a block of coal; I tell him, neighbours could hardly refuse; but he never will do anything; he says he has asked too often."

"I will ask," said Sybil. "But first, I have a companion without," she added, "who bears a basket for you. Come in, Harold."

The baby began to cry the moment a large dog entered the room; a young bloodhound of the ancient breed, such as are now found but in a few old halls and granges in the north of England. Sybil untied the basket, and gave a piece of sugar to the screaming infant. Her glance was sweeter even than her remedy; the infant stared at her with his large blue eyes; for an instant astonished, and then he smiled.

"Oh! beautiful child!" exclaimed Sybil; and she took the babe up from the mattress and embraced it.

"You are an angel from heaven," exclaimed the mother, "and you may well say beautiful. And only to think of that infamous girl, Harriet, to desert us all in this way."

Sybil drew forth the contents of the convent basket, and called Warner's attention to them. "Now," she said, "arrange all this as I tell you, and I will go down stairs and speak to them below as you wish, Harold rest there;" and the dog laid himself down in the remotest corner.

"And is that Gerard's daughter?" said the weaver's wife. "Only think what it is to gain two pounds a-week, and bring up your daughters in that way—instead of such shameless husseys as our Harriet! But with such wages one can do anything. What have you there, Warner? Is that tea? Oh! I should like some tea. I do think tea would do me some good. I have quite a longing for it. Run down, Warner, and ask them to let us have a kettle of hot water. It is better than all the fire in the world. Amelia, my dear, do you see what they have sent us. Plenty to eat. Tell Maria all about it. You are good girls; you will never be like that infamous Harriet. When you earn wages you will give them to your poor mother and baby, won't you?"

"Yes, mother," said Amelia.

"And father, too," said Maria.

"And father, too," said the wife. "He has been a very good father to you all; and I never can understand why one who works so hard should earn so little; but I believe it is the fault of those machines. The police ought to put them down, and then every body would be comfortable."

Sybil and Warner re-entered; the fire was lit, the tea made, the meal partaken. An air of comfort, even of enjoyment, was diffused over this chamber, but a few minutes back so desolate and unhappy.

"Well," said the wife, raising herself a little up in her bed, "I feel as if that dish of tea had saved my life. Amelia, have you had any tea? And Maria? You see what it is to be good girls; the Lord will never desert you. The day is fast coming when that Harriet will know what the want of a dish of tea is, with all her fine wages. And I am sure," she added, addressing Sybil, "what we all owe to you is not to be told. Your father well deserves his good fortune, with such a daughter."

"My father's fortunes are not much better than his neighbours," said Sybil, "but his wants are few; and who should sympathise with the poor, but the poor? Alas! none else can. Besides, it is the Superior of our convent that has sent you this meal. What my father can do for you, I have told your husband. 'Tis little; but with the favour of heaven, it may avail. When the people support the people, the divine blessing will not be wanting."

"I am sure the divine blessing will never be wanting to you," said Warner in a voice of great emotion.

There was silence; the querulous spirit of the wife was subdued by the tone of Sybil; she revolved in her mind the present and the past; the children pursued their ungrudged and unusual meal; the daughter of Gerard, that she might not interfere with their occupation, walked to the window and surveyed the chink of troubled sky, which was visible in the court. The wind blew in gusts; the rain beat against the glass. Soon after this, there was another knock at the door. Harold started from his repose, and growled. Warner rose, and saying, "they have come for the rent. Thank God, I am ready," advanced and opened the door. Two men offered with courtesy to enter.

"We are strangers," said he who took the lead, "but would not be such. I speak to Warner?"

"My name."

"And I am your spiritual pastor, if to be the vicar of Mowbray entitles me to that description."

"Mr St Lys."

"The same. One of the most valued of my flock, and the most influential person in this district, has been speaking much of you to me this morning. You are working for him. He did not hear of you on Saturday night; he feared you were ill. Mr Barber spoke to me of your distress, as well as of your good character. I came to express to you my respect and my sympathy, and to offer you my assistance."

"You are most good, sir, and Mr Barber too, and indeed, an hour ago, we were in as great straits—."

"And are now, sir," exclaimed his wife interrupting him. "I have been in this bed a-week, and may never rise from it again; the children have no clothes; they are pawned; everything is pawned; this morning we had neither fuel, nor food. And we thought you had come for the rent which we cannot pay. If it had not been for a dish of tea which was charitably given me this morning by a person almost as poor as ourselves that is to say, they live by labour, though their wages are much higher, as high as two pounds a-week, though how that can be I never shall understand, when my husband is working twelve hours a day, and gaining only a penny an hour—if it had not been for this I should have been a corpse; and yet he says we were in straits, merely because Walter Gerard's daughter, who I willingly grant is an angel from heaven for all the good she has done us, has stepped into our aid. But the poor supporting the poor, as she well says, what good can come from that!"

During this ebullition, Mr St Lys had surveyed the apartment and recognised Sybil.

"Sister," he said when the wife of Warner had ceased, "this is not the first time we have met under the roof of sorrow."

Sybil bent in silence, and moved as if she were about to retire: the wind and rain came dashing against the window. The companion of Mr St Lys, who was clad in a rough great coat, and was shaking the wet off an oilskin hat known by the name of a 'south-wester,' advanced and said to her, "It is but a squall, but a very severe one; I would recommend you to stay for a few minutes."

She received this remark with courtesy but did not reply.

"I think," continued the companion of Mr St Lys, "that this is not the first time also that we have met?"

"I cannot recall our meeting before," said Sybil.

"And yet it was not many days past; though the sky was so very different, that it would almost make one believe it was in another land and another clime."

Sybil looked at him as if for explanation.

"It was at Marney Abbey," said the companion of Mr St Lys.

"I was there; and I remember, when about to rejoin my companions, they were not alone."

"And you disappeared; very suddenly I thought: for I left the ruins almost at the same moment as your friends, yet I never saw any of you again."

"We took our course; a very rugged one; you perhaps pursued a more even way."

"Was it your first visit to Marney?"

"My first and my last. There was no place I more desired to see; no place of which the vision made me so sad."

"The glory has departed," said Egremont mournfully.

"It is not that," said Sybil: "I was prepared for decay, but not for such absolute desecration. The Abbey seems a quarry for materials to repair farm-houses; and the nave a cattle gate. What people they must be—that family of sacrilege who hold these lands!"

"Hem!" said Egremont. "They certainly do not appear to have much feeling for ecclesiastical art."

"And for little else, as we were told," said Sybil. "There was a fire at the Abbey farm the day we were there, and from all that reached us, it would appear the people were as little tendered as the Abbey walls."

"They have some difficulty perhaps in employing their population in those parts."

"You know the country?"

"Not at all: I was travelling in the neighbourhood, and made a diversion for the sake of seeing an abbey of which I had heard so much."

"Yes; it was the greatest of the Northern Houses. But they told me the people were most wretched round the Abbey; nor do I think there is any other cause for their misery, than the hard hearts of the family that have got the lands."

"You feel deeply for the people!" said Egremont looking at her earnestly.

Sybil returned him a glance expressive of some astonishment, and then said, "And do not you? Your presence here assures me of it."

"I humbly follow one who would comfort the unhappy."

"The charity of Mr St Lys is known to all."

"And you—you too are a ministering angel."

"There is no merit in my conduct, for there is no sacrifice. When I remember what this English people once was; the truest, the freest, and the bravest, the best-natured and the best-looking, the happiest and most religious race upon the surface of this globe; and think of them now, with all their crimes and all their slavish sufferings, their soured spirits and their stunted forms; their lives without enjoyment and their deaths without hope; I may well feel for them, even if I were not the daughter of their blood."

And that blood mantled to her cheek as she ceased to speak, and her dark eye gleamed with emotion, and an expression of pride and courage hovered on her brow. Egremont caught her glance and withdrew his own; his heart was troubled.

St Lys. who had been in conference with the weaver, left him and went to the bedside of his wife. Warner advanced to Sybil, and expressed his feelings for her father, his sense of her goodness. She, observing that the squall seemed to have ceased, bade him farewell, and calling Harold, quitted the chamber.

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