Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 16

About three miles before it reaches the town, the river Mowe undulates through a plain. The scene, though not very picturesque, has a glad and sparkling character. A stone bridge unites the opposite banks by three arches of good proportion; the land about consists of meads of a vivid colour, or vegetable gardens to supply the neighbouring population, and whose various hues give life and lightness to the level ground. The immediate boundaries of the plain on either side are chiefly woods; above the crest of which in one direction expands the brown bosom of a moor. The few cottages which are sprinkled about this scene being built of stone, and on an ample scale, contribute to the idea of comfort and plenty which, with a serene sky and on a soft summer day, the traveller willingly associates with it.

Such was the sky and season in which Egremont emerged on this scene a few days after the incidents recorded in our last chapter. He had been fishing in the park of Mowbray, and had followed the rivulet through many windings until, quitting the enclosed domain it had forced its way through some craggy underwood at the bottom of the hilly moors we have noticed, and finally entering the plain, lost itself in the waters of the greater stream.

Good sport had not awaited Egremont. Truth to say, his rod had played in a very careless hand. He had taken it, though an adept in the craft when in the mood, rather as an excuse to be alone, than a means to be amused. There are seasons in life when solitude is a necessity; and such a one had now descended on the spirit of the brother of Lord Marney.

The form of Sybil Gerard was stamped upon his brain. It blended with all thoughts; it haunted every object. Who was this girl, unlike all women whom he had yet encountered, who spoke with such sweet seriousness of things of such vast import, but which had never crossed his mind, and with a kind of mournful majesty bewailed the degradation of her race? The daughter of the lowly, yet proud of her birth. Not a noble lady in the land who could boast a mien more complete, and none of them thus gifted, who possessed withal the fascinating simplicity that pervaded every gesture and accent of the daughter of Gerard.

Yes! the daughter of Gerard; the daughter of a workman at a manufactory. It had not been difficult, after the departure of Sybil, to extract this information from the garrulous wife of the weaver. And that father,—he was not unknown to Egremont. His proud form and generous countenance were still fresh in the mind's eye of our friend. Not less so his thoughtful speech; full of knowledge and meditation and earnest feeling! How much that he had spoken still echoed in the heart, and rung in the brooding ear of Egremont. And his friend, too, that pale man with those glittering eyes, who without affectation, without pedantry, with artlessness on the contrary and a degree of earnest singleness, had glanced like a master of philosophy at the loftiest principles of political science,—was he too a workman? And are these then THE PEOPLE? If so, thought Egremont, would that I lived more among them! Compared with their converse, the tattle of our saloons has in it something humiliating. It is not merely that it is deficient in warmth, and depth, and breadth; that it is always discussing persons instead of principles, and cloaking its want of thought in mimetic dogmas and its want of feeling in superficial raillery; it is not merely that it has neither imagination, nor fancy, nor sentiment, nor feeling, nor knowledge to recommend it; but it appears to me, even as regards manner and expression, inferior in refinement and phraseology; in short, trivial, uninteresting, stupid, really vulgar.

It seemed to Egremont that, from the day he met these persons in the Abbey ruins, the horizon of his experience had insensibly expanded; more than that, there were streaks of light breaking in the distance, which already gave a new aspect to much that was known, and which perhaps was ultimately destined to reveal much that was now utterly obscure. He could not resist the conviction that from the time in question, his sympathies had become more lively and more extended; that a masculine impulse had been given to his mind; that he was inclined to view public questions in a tone very different to that in which he had surveyed them a few weeks back, when on the hustings of his borough.

Revolving these things, he emerged, as we have stated, into the plain of the Mowe, and guiding his path by the course of the river, he arrived at the bridge which a fancy tempted him to cross. In its centre, was a man gazing on the waters below and leaning over the parapet. His footstep roused the loiterer, who looked round; and Egremont saw that it was Walter Gerard.

Gerard returned his salute, and said, "Early hours on Saturday afternoon make us all saunterers;" and then, as their way was the same, they walked on together. It seemed that Gerard's cottage was near at hand, and having inquired after Egremont's sport, and receiving for a reply a present of a brace of trout,—the only one, by the bye, that was in Egremont's basket,—he could scarcely do less than invite his companion to rest himself.

"There is my home," said Gerard, pointing to a cottage recently built, and in a pleasing style. Its materials were of a fawn-coloured stone, common in the Mowbray quarries. A scarlet creeper clustered round one side of its ample porch; its windows were large, mullioned, and neatly latticed; it stood in the midst of a garden of no mean dimensions but every bed and nook of which teemed with cultivation; flowers and vegetables both abounded, while an orchard rich with promise of many fruits; ripe pears and famous pippins of the north and plums of every shape and hue; screened the dwelling from that wind against which the woods that formed its back-ground were no protection.

"And you are well lodged! Your garden does you honour."

"I'll be honest enough to own I have no claim to the credit," said Gerard. "I am but a lazy chiel."

They entered the cottage, where a hale old woman greeted them.

"She is too old to be my wife, and too young to be my mother," said Gerard smiling; "but she is a good creature, and has looked after me many a long day. Come, dame," he said, "thou'lt bring us a cup of tea; 'tis a good evening beverage," he added, turning to Egremont. "and what I ever take at this time. And if you care to light a pipe, you will find a companion."

"I have renounced tobacco," said Egremont; "tobacco is the tomb of love," and they entered a neatly-furnished chamber, that had that habitable look which the best room of a farmhouse too often wants. Instead of the cast-off furniture of other establishments, at the same time dingy and tawdry, mock rosewood chairs and tarnished mahogany tables, there was an oaken table, some cottage chairs made of beech wood, and a Dutch clock. But what surprised Egremont was the appearance of several shelves well lined with volumes. Their contents too on closer inspection were very remarkable. They indicated a student of a high order. Egremont read the titles of works which he only knew by fame, but which treated of the loftiest and most subtle questions of social and political philosophy. As he was throwing his eye over them, his companion said, "Ah! I see you think me as great a scholar as I am a gardener: but with as little justice; these hooks are not mine."

"To whomsoever they belong," said Egremont, "if we are to judge from his collection, he has a tolerably strong head."

"Ay, ay," said Gerard, "the world will hear of him yet, though he was only a workman, and the son of a workman. He has not been at your schools and your colleges, but he can write his mother tongue, as Shakespeare and Cobbett wrote it; and you must do that, if you wish to influence the people."

"And might I ask his name," said Egremont.

"Stephen Morley, my friend."

"The person I saw with you at Marney Abbey?"

"The same."

"And he lives with you?"

"Why, we kept house together, if you could call it so. Stephen does not give much trouble in that way. He only drinks water and only eats herbs and fruits. He is the gardener," added Gerard, smiling. "I don't know how we shall fare when he leaves me."

"And is he going to leave you?"

"Why in a manner he has gone. He has taken a cottage about a quarter of a mile up the dale; and only left his books here, because he is going into —shire in a day or two, on some business, that may be will take him a week or so. The books are safer here you see for the present, for Stephen lives alone, and is a good deal away, for he edits a paper at Mowbray, and that must be looked after. He is to be my gardener still. I promised him that. Well done, dame," said Gerard, as the old woman entered; "I hope for the honour of the house a good brew. Now comrade sit down: it will do you good after your long stroll. You should eat your own trout if you would wait?"

"By no means. You will miss your friend, I should think?"

"We shall see a good deal of him, I doubt not, what with the garden and neighbourhood and so on; besides, in a manner, he is master of his own time. His work is not like ours; and though the pull on the brain is sometimes great, I have often wished I had a talent that way. It's a drear life to do the same thing every day at the same hour. But I never could express my ideas except with my tongue; and there I feel tolerably at home."

"It will be a pity to see this room without these books," said Egremont, encouraging conversation on domestic subjects.

"So it will," said Gerard. "I have got very few of my own. But my daughter will be able to fill the shelves in time, I warrant."

"Your daughter—she is coming to live with you?"

"Yes; that is the reason why Stephen quits us. He only remained here until Sybil could keep my house, and that happy day is at hand."

"That is a great compensation for the loss of your friend," said Egremont.

"And yet she talks of flitting," said Gerard, in a rather melancholy tone. "She hankers after the cloister. She has passed a still, sweet life in the convent here; the Superior is the sister of my employer and a very saint on earth; and Sybil knows nothing of the real world except its sufferings. No matter," he added more cheerfully; "I would not have her take the veil rashly, but if I lose her it may be for the best. For the married life of a woman of our class in the present condition of our country is a lease of woe," he added shaking his head, "slaves, and the slaves of slaves? Even woman's spirit cannot stand against it; and it can bear against more than we can, master."

"Your daughter is not made for the common cares of life," said Egremont.

"We'll not talk of them," said Gerard. "Sybil has an English heart, and that's not easily broken. And you, comrade, you are a traveller in these parts, eh?"

"A kind of traveller; something in the way of your friend Morley—connected with the press."

"Indeed! a reporter, eh? I thought you had something about you a little more knowing than we provincials."

"Yes; a reporter; they want information in London as to the real state of the country, and this time of the year, Parliament not sitting—Ah; I understand, a flying commission and a summer tour. Well, I often wish I were a penman; but I never could do it. I'll read any day as long as you like, but that writing, I could never manage. My friend Morley is a powerful hand at it. His journal circulates a good deal about here; and if as I often tell him he would only sink his high-flying philosophy and stick to old English politics, he might make a property of it. You'll like to know him?"

"Much."

"And what first took you to the press, if I may ask!"

"Why—my father was a gentleman—", said Egremont in a hesitating tone, "and I was a younger son."

"Ah!" said Gerard, "that is as bad as being a woman."

"I had no patrimony," continued Egremont, "and I was obliged to work; I had no head I believe for the law; the church was not exactly in my way; and as for the army, how was I to advance without money or connexions! I had had some education, and so I thought I would turn it to account."

"Wisely done! you are one of the working classes, and will enlist I hope in the great struggle against the drones. The natural friends of the people are younger sons, though they are generally enlisted against us. The more fools they; to devote their energies to the maintenance of a system which is founded on selfishness and which leads to fraud; and of which they are the first victims. But every man thinks he will be an exception."

"And yet," said Egremont, "a great family rooted in the land, has been deemed to be an element of political strength."

"I'll tell you what," said Gerard, "there is a great family in this country and rooted in it, of which we have heard much less than they deserved, but of which I suspect we shall hear very soon enough to make us all think a bit."

"In this county?"

"Ay; in this county and every other one; I mean the PEOPLE."

"Ah!" said Egremont, "that family has existed for a long time."

"But it has taken to increase rapidly of late, my friend—how may I call you?"

"They call me, Franklin."

"A good English name of a good English class that has disappeared. Well, Mr Franklin, be sure of this, that the Population Returns of this country are very instructive reading."

"I can conceive so."

"I became a man when the bad times were beginning," said Gerard; "I have passed through many doleful years. I was a Franklin's son myself, and we had lived on this island at least no worse for a longer time than I care to recollect as little as what I am now. But that's nothing; I am not thinking of myself. I am prosperous in a fashion; it is the serfs I live among of whom I am thinking. Well, I have heard, in the course of years, of some specifics for this constant degradation of the people; some thing or some person that was to put all right; and for my part, I was not unready to support any proposal or follow any leader. There was reform, and there was paper money, and no machinery, and a thousand other remedies; and there were demagogues of all kinds, some as had as myself, and some with blood in their veins almost as costly as flows in those of our great neighbour here. Earl de Mowbray, and I have always heard that was very choice: but I will frankly own to you, I never had much faith in any of these proposals or proposers; but they were a change, and that is something. But I have been persuaded of late that there is something going on in this country of more efficacy; a remedial power, as I believe, and irresistible; but whether remedial or not, at any rate a power that will mar all or cure all. You apprehend me? I speak of the annual arrival of more than three hundred thousand strangers in this island. How will you feed them? How will you clothe them? How will you house them? They have given up butcher's meat; must they give up bread? And as for raiment and shelter, the rags of the kingdom are exhausted and your sinks and cellars already swarm like rabbit warrens.

"'Tis an awful consideration," said Egremont musing.

"Awful," said Gerard; "'tis the most solemn thing since the deluge. What kingdom can stand against it? Why go to your history—you're a scholar,—and see the fall of the great Roman empire—what was that? Every now and then, there came two or three hundred thousand strangers out of the forests and crossed the mountains and rivers. They come to us every year and in greater numbers. What are your invasions of the barbarous nations, your Goths and Visigoths, your Lombards and Huns, to our Population Returns!"

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