Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 5

The summer twilight had faded into sweet night; the young and star-attended moon glittered like a sickle in the deep purple sky; of all the luminous host, Hesperus alone was visible; and a breeze, that bore the last embrace of the flowers by the sun, moved languidly and fitfully over the still and odorous earth.

The moonbeam fell upon the roof and garden of Gerard. It suffused the cottage with its brilliant light, except where the dark depth of the embowered porch defied its entry. All around the beds of flowers and herbs spread sparkling and defined. You could trace the minutest walk; almost distinguish every leaf. Now and then there came a breath, and the sweet-peas murmured in their sleep; or the roses rustled, as if they were afraid they were about to be roused from their lightsome dreams. Farther on the fruit-trees caught the splendour of the night; and looked like a troop of sultanas taking their gardened air, when the eye of man could not profane them, and laden with jewels. There were apples that rivalled rubies; pears of topaz tint: a whole paraphernalia of plums, some purple as the amethyst, others blue and brilliant as the sapphire; an emerald here, and now a golden drop that gleamed like the yellow diamond of Gengis Khan.

Within—was the scene less fair? A single lamp shed over the chamber a soft and sufficient light. The library of Stephen Morley had been removed, but the place of his volumes had been partly supplied, for the shelves were far from being empty. Their contents were of no ordinary character: many volumes of devotion, some of church history, one or two on ecclesiastical art, several works of our elder dramatists, some good reprints of our chronicles, and many folios of church music, which last indeed amounted to a remarkable collection. There was no musical instrument however in the room of any kind, and the only change in its furniture, since we last visited the room of Gerard, was the presence of a long-backed chair of antique form, most beautifully embroidered, and a portrait of a female saint over the mantel-piece. As for Gerard himself he sat with his head leaning on his arm, which rested on the table, while he listened with great interest to a book which was read to him by his daughter, at whose feet lay the fiery and faithful bloodhound.

"So you see, my father," said Sybil with animation, and dropping her book which however her hand did not relinquish, "even then all was not lost. The stout earl retired beyond the Trent, and years and reigns elapsed before this part of the island accepted their laws and customs."

"I see," said her father, "and yet I cannot help wishing that Harold—" Here the hound, hearing his name, suddenly rose and looked at Gerard, who smiling, patted him and said, "We were not talking of thee, good sir, but of thy great namesake; but ne'er mind, a live dog they say is worth a dead king."

"Ah! why have we not such a man now," said Sybil, "to protect the people! Were I a prince I know no career that I should deem so great."

"But Stephen says no," said Gerard: "he says that these great men have never made use of us but as tools; and that the people never can have their rights until they produce competent champions from their own order."

"But then Stephen does not want to recall the past," said Sybil with a kind of sigh; "he wishes to create the future."

"The past is a dream," said Gerard.

"And what is the future?" enquired Sybil.

"Alack! I know not; but I often wish the battle of Hastings were to be fought over again and I was going to have a hand in it."

"Ah! my father," said Sybil with a mournful smile, "there is ever your fatal specific of physical force. Even Stephen is against physical force, with all his odd fancies."

"All very true," said Gerard smiling with good nature; "but all the same when I was coming home a few days ago, and stopped awhile on the bridge and chanced to see myself in the stream, I could not help fancying that my Maker had fashioned these limbs rather to hold a lance or draw a bow, than to supervise a shuttle or a spindle."

"Yet with the shuttle and the spindle we may redeem our race," said Sybil with animation, "if we could only form the minds that move those peaceful weapons. Oh! my father, I will believe that moral power is irresistible, or where are we to look for hope?"

Gerard shook his head with his habitual sweet good-tempered smile. "Ah!" said he, "what can we do; they have got the land, and the land governs the people. The Norman knew that, Sybil, as you just read. If indeed we had our rights, one might do something; but I don't know; I dare say if I had our land again, I should be as bad as the rest."

"Oh! no, my father," exclaimed Sybil with energy, "never, never! Your thoughts would be as princely as your lot. What a leader of the people you would make!"

Harold sprang up suddenly and growled.

"Hush!" said Gerard; "some one knocks:" and he rose and left the room. Sybil heard voices and broken sentences: "You'll excuse me"—"I take it kindly"—"So we are neighbours." And then her father returned, ushering in a person and saying, "Here is my friend Mr Franklin that I was speaking of, Sybil, who is going to be our neighbour; down Harold, down!" and he presented to his daughter the companion of Mr St Lys in that visit to the Hand-loom weaver when she had herself met the vicar of Mowbray.

Sybil rose, and letting her book drop gently on the table, received Egremont with composure and native grace. It is civilization that makes us awkward, for it gives us an uncertain position. Perplexed, we take refuge in pretence; and embarrassed, we seek a resource in affectation. The Bedouin and the Red Indian never lose their presence of mind; and the wife of a peasant, when you enter her cottage, often greets you with a propriety of mien which favourably contrasts with your reception by some grand dame in some grand assembly, meeting her guests alternately with a caricature of courtesy or an exaggeradon of supercilious self-control.

"I dare say," said Egremont bowing to Sybil, "you have seen our poor friend the weaver since we met there."

"The day I quitted Mowbray," said Sybil. "They are not without friends."

"Ah! you have met my daughter before."

"On a mission of grace," said Egremont.

"And I suppose you found the town not very pleasant, Mr Franklin," continued Gerard.

"No; I could not stand it, the nights were so close. Besides I have a great accumulation of notes, and I fancied I could reduce them into a report more efficiently in comparative seclusion. So I have got a room near here, with a little garden, not so pretty as yours; but still a garden is something; and if I want any additional information, why, after all, Mowbray is only a walk."

"You say well and have done wisely. Besides you have such late hours in London, and hard work. Some country air will do you all the good in the world. That gallery must be tiresome. Do you use shorthand?"

"A sort of shorthand of my own," said Egremont. "I trust a good deal to my memory."

"Ah! you are young. My daughter also has a wonderful memory. For my own part, there are many things which I am not sorry to forget."

"You see I took you at your word, neighbour," said Egremont. "When one has been at work the whole day one feels a little lonely towards night."

"Very true; and I dare say you find desk work sometimes very dull; I never could make anything of it myself. I can manage a book well enough, if it be well written, and on points I care for; but I would sooner listen than read any time," said Gerard. "Indeed I should be right glad to see the minstrel and the storyteller going their rounds again. It would be easy after a day's work, when one has not, as I have now, a good child to read to me."

"This volume?" said Egremont drawing his chair to the table and looking at Sybil, who intimated assent by a nod.

"Ah! it's a fine book," said Gerard, "though on a sad subject."

"The History of the Conquest of England by the Normans," said Egremont, reading the title page on which also was written "Ursula Trafford to Sybil Gerard."

"You know it?" said Sybil.

"Only by fame."

"Perhaps the subject may not interest you so much as it does us," said Sybil.

"It must interest all and all alike," said her father; "for we are divided between the conquerors and the conquered."

"But do not you think," said Egremont, "that such a distinction has long ceased to exist?"

"In what degree?" asked Gerard. "Many circumstances of oppression have doubtless gradually disappeared: but that has arisen from the change of manners, not from any political recognition of their injustice. The same course of time which has removed many enormities, more shocking however to our modern feelings than to those who devised and endured them, has simultaneously removed many alleviating circumstances. If the mere baron's grasp be not so ruthless, the champion we found in the church is no longer so ready. The spirit of Conquest has adapted itself to the changing circumstances of ages, and however its results vary in form, in degree they are much the same."

"But how do they show themselves?"

"In many circumstances, which concern many classes; but I speak of those which touch my own order; and therefore I say at once—in the degradation of the people."

"But are the people so degraded?"

"There is more serfdom in England now than at any time since the Conquest. I speak of what passes under my daily eyes when I say that those who labour can as little choose or change their masters now, as when they were born thralls. There are great bodies of the working classes of this country nearer the condition of brutes, than they have been at any time since the Conquest. Indeed I see nothing to distinguish them from brutes, except that their morals are inferior. Incest and infanticide are as common among them as among the lower animals. The domestic principle waxes weaker and weaker every year in England: nor can we wonder at it, when there is no comfort to cheer and no sentiment to hallow the Home."

"I was reading a work the other day," said Egremont, "that statistically proved that the general condition of the people was much better at this moment than it had been at any known period of history."

"Ah! yes, I know that style of speculation," said Gerard; "your gentleman who reminds you that a working man now has a pair of cotton stockings, and that Harry the Eighth himself was not as well off. At any rate, the condition of classes must be judged of by the age, and by their relation with each other. One need not dwell on that. I deny the premises. I deny that the condition of the main body is better now than at any other period of our history; that it is as good as it has been at several. I say, for instance, the people were better clothed, better lodged, and better fed just before the war of the Roses than they are at this moment. We know how an English peasant lived in those times: he eat flesh every day, he never drank water, was well housed, and clothed in stout woollens. Nor are the Chronicles necessary to tell us this. The acts of Parliament from the Plantagenets to the Tudors teach us alike the price of provisions and the rate of wages; and we see in a moment that the wages of those days brought as much sustenance and comfort as a reasonable man could desire."

"I know how deeply you feel upon this subject," said Egremont turning to Sybil.

"Indeed it is the only subject that ever engages my thought," she replied, "except one."

"And that one?"

"Is to see the people once more kneel before our blessed Lady," replied Sybil.

"Look at the average term of life," said Gerard, coming unintentionally to the relief of Egremont, who was a little embarrassed. "The average term of life in this district among the working classes is seventeen. What think you of that? Of the infants born in Mowbray, more than a moiety die before the age of five."

"And yet," said Egremont, "in old days they had terrible pestilences."

"But they touched all alike," said Gerard. "We have more pestilence now in England than we ever had, but it only reaches the poor. You never hear of it. Why Typhus alone takes every year from the dwellings of the artisan and peasant a population equal to that of the whole county of Westmoreland. This goes on every year, but the representatives of the conquerors are not touched: it is the descendants of the conquered alone who are the victims."

"It sometimes seems to me," said Sybil despondingly, "that nothing short of the descent of angels can save the people of this kingdom."

"I sometimes think I hear a little bird," said Gerard, "who sings that the long frost may yet break up. I have a friend, him of whom I was speaking to you the other day, who has his remedies."

"But Stephen Morley does not believe in angels," said Sybil with a sigh; "and I have no faith in his plan."

"He believes that God will help those who help themselves," said Gerard.

"And I believe," said Sybil, "that those only can help themselves whom God helps."

All this time Egremont was sitting at the table, with the book in his hand, gazing fitfully and occasionally with an air of absence on its title-page, whereon was written the name of its owner. Suddenly he said "Sybil."

"Yes," said the daughter of Gerard, with an air of some astonishment.

"I beg your pardon," said Egremont blushing; "I was reading your name. I thought I was reading it to myself. Sybil Gerard! What a beautiful name is Sybil!"

"My mother's name," said Gerard; "and my grandame's name, and a name I believe that has been about our hearth as long as our race; and that's a very long time indeed," he added smiling, "for we were tall men in King John's reign, as I have heard say."

"Yours is indeed an old family."

"Ay, we have some English blood in our veins, though peasants and the sons of peasants. But there was one of us who drew a bow at Azincourt; and I have heard greater things, but I believe they are old wives' tales."

"At least we have nothing left," said Sybil, "but our old faith; and that we have clung to through good report and evil report."

"And now," said Gerard, "I rise with the lark, good neighbour Franklin; but before you go, Sybil will sing to us a requiem that I love: it stills the spirit before we sink into the slumber which may this night be death, and which one day must be."

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