Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 10

Time passes with a measured and memorable wing during the first period of a sojourn in a new place, among new characters and new manners. Every person, every incident, every feeling, touches and stirs the imagination. The restless mind creates and observes at the same time. Indeed there is scarcely any popular tenet more erroneous than that which holds that when time is slow, life is dull. It is very often and very much the reverse. If we look back on those passages of our life which dwell most upon the memory, they are brief periods full of action and novel sensation. Egremont found this so during the first days of his new residence in Mowedale. The first week, an epoch in his life, seemed an age; at the end of the first month, he began to deplore the swiftness of time and almost to moralize over the brevity of existence. He found that he was leading a life of perfect happiness, but of remarkable simplicity; he wished it might never end, but felt difficulty in comprehending how in the first days of his experience of it, it had seemed so strange; almost as strange as it was sweet. The day that commenced early, was past in reading—books lent him often too by Sybil Gerard—sometimes in a ramble with her and Morley, who had time much at his command, to some memorable spot in the neighbourhood, or in the sport which the river and the rod secured Egremont. In the evening, he invariably repaired to the cottage of Gerard, beneath whose humble roof he found every female charm that can fascinate, and conversation that stimulated his intelligence. Gerard was ever the same; hearty, simple, with a depth of feeling and native thought on the subjects on which they touched, and with a certain grandeur of sentiment and conception which contrasted with his social position, but which became his idiosyncracy. Sybil spoke little, but hung upon the accents of her father; yet ever and anon her rich tones conveyed to the charmed ear of Egremont some deep conviction, the earnestness of her intellect as remarkable as the almost sacred repose of her mien and manner. Of Morley, at first Egremont saw a great deal: he lent our friend books, opened with unreserve and with great richness of speculative and illustrative power, on the questions which ever engaged him, and which were new and highly interesting to his companion. But as time advanced, whether it were that the occupations of Morley increased, and the calls on his hours left him fewer occasions for the indulgence of social intercourse, Egremont saw him seldom, except at Gerard's cottage, where generally he might be found in the course of the week, and their rambles together had entirely ceased.

Alone, Egremont mused much over the daughter of Gerard, but shrinking from the precise and the definite, his dreams were delightful, but vague. All that he asked was, that his present life should go on for ever; he wished for no change, and at length almost persuaded himself that no change could arrive; as men who are basking in a summer sun, surrounded by bright and beautiful objects, cannot comprehend how the seasons can ever alter; that the sparkling foliage should shrivel and fall away, the foaming waters become icebound, and the blue serene, a dark and howling space.

In this train of mind, the early days of October having already stolen on him, an incident occurred which startled him in his retirement, and rendered it necessary that he should instantly quit it. Egremont had entrusted the secret of his residence to a faithful servant who communicated with him when necessary, under his assumed name. Through these means he received a letter from his mother, written from London, where she had unexpectedly arrived, entreating him, in urgent terms, to repair to her without a moment's delay, on a matter of equal interest and importance to herself and him. Such an appeal from such a quarter, from the parent that had ever been kind, and the friend that had been ever faithful, was not for a moment to be neglected. Already a period had elapsed since its transmission, which Egremont regretted. He resolved at once to quit Mowedale, nor could he console himself with the prospect of an immediate return. Parliament was to assemble in the ensuing month, and independent of the unknown cause which summoned him immediately to town, he was well aware that much disagreeable business awaited him which could no longer be postponed. He had determined not to take his seat unless the expenses of his contest were previously discharged, and despairing of his brother's aid, and shrinking from trespassing any further on his mother's resources, the future looked gloomy enough: indeed nothing but the frequent presence and the constant influence of Sybil had driven from his mind the ignoble melancholy which, relieved by no pensive fancy, is the invariable attendant of pecuniary embarrassment.

And now he was to leave her. The event, rather the catastrophe, which under any circumstances, could not be long postponed, was to be precipitated. He strolled up to the cottage to bid her farewell and to leave kind words for her father. Sybil was not there. The old dame who kept their home informed him that Sybil was at the convent, but would return in the evening. It was impossible to quit Mowedale without seeing Sybil; equally impossible to postpone his departure. But by travelling through the night, the lost hours might be regained. And Egremont made his arrangements, and awaited with anxiety and impatience the last evening.

The evening, like his heart, was not serene. The soft air that had lingered so long with them, a summer visitant in an autumnal sky and loth to part, was no more present. A cold harsh wind, gradually rising, chilled the system and grated on the nerves. There was misery in its blast and depression in its moan. Egremont felt infinitely dispirited. The landscape around him that he had so often looked upon with love and joy, was dull and hard; the trees dingy, the leaden waters motionless, the distant hills rough and austere. Where was that translucent sky, once brilliant as his enamoured fancy; those bowery groves of aromatic fervor wherein he had loved to roam and muse; that river of swift and sparkling light that flowed and flashed like the current of his enchanted hours? All vanished—as his dreams.

He stood before the cottage of Gerard; he recalled the eve that he had first gazed upon its moonlit garden. What wild and delicious thoughts were then his! They were gone like the illumined hour. Nature and fortune had alike changed. Prescient of sorrow, almost prophetic of evil, he opened the cottage door, and the first person his eye encountered was Morley.

Egremont had not met him for some time, and his cordial greeting of Egremont to-night contrasted with the coldness, not to say estrangement, which to the regret and sometimes the perplexity of Egremont had gradually grown up between them. Yet on no occasion was his presence less desired by our friend. Morley was talking as Egremont entered with great animation; in his hand a newspaper, on a paragraph contained in which he was commenting. The name of Marney caught the ear of Egremont who turned rather pale at the sound, and hesitated on the threshold. The unembarrassed welcome of his friends however re-assured him, and in a moment he even ventured to enquire the subject of their conversation. Morley immediately referring to the newspaper said, "This is what I have just read—

"EXTRAORDINARY SPORT AT THE EARL OF MARNEY'S.

On Wednesday, in a small cover called the Horns, near Marney Abbey, his grace the Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine, the Earl of Marney, Colonel Rippe and Captain Grouse, with only four hours shooting, bagged the extraordinary number of seven hundred and thirty head of game, namely hares three hundred and thirty-nine; pheasants two hundred and twenty-one; partridges thirty-four; rabbits eighty-seven; and the following day upwards of fifty hares, pheasants, &c., (wounded the previous day) were picked up. Out of the four hours' shooting two of the party were absent an hour and a-half, namely the Earl of Marney and Captain Grouse, attending an agricultural meeting in the neighbourhood; the noble earl with his usual considerate condescension having kindly consented personally to distribute the various prizes to the labourers whose good conduct entitled them to the distinction."

"What do you think of that, Franklin?" said Morley. "That is our worthy friend of Marney Abbey, where we first met. You do not know this part of the country, or you would smile at the considerate condescension of the worst landlord in England; and who was, it seems, thus employed the day or so after his battue, as they call it." And Morley turning the paper read another paragraph:—

"At a Petty Sessions holden at the Green Dragon Inn, Marney, Friday, October—, 1837.

"Magistrates present: The Earl of Marney, the Rev. Felix Flimsey, and Captain Grouse.

"Information against Robert Hind for a trespass in pursuit of game in Blackrock Wood, the property of Sir Vavasour Firebrace, Bart. The case was distinctly proved; several wires being found in the pocket of the defendant. Defendant was fined in the full penalty of forty shillings and costs twenty-seven; the Bench being of opinion there was no excuse for him, Hind being in regular employ as a farm labourer and gaining his seven shillings a-week. Defendant being unable to pay the penalty, was sent for two months to Marham Gaol."

"What a pity," said Morley, "that Robert Hind, instead of meditating the snaring of a hare, had not been fortunate enough to pick up a maimed one crawling about the fields the day after the battue. It would certainly have been better for himself; and if he has a wife and family, better for the parish."

"Oh!" said Gerard, "I doubt not they were all picked up by the poulterer who has the contract: even the Normans did not sell their game."

"The question is," said Morley, "would you rather be barbarous or mean; that is the alternative presented by the real and the pseudo Norman nobility of England. Where I have been lately, there is a Bishopsgate Street merchant who has been made for no conceiveable public reason a baron bold. Bigod and Bohun could not enforce the forest laws with such severity as this dealer in cotton and indigo."

"It is a difficult question to deal with—this affair of the game laws," said Egremont; "how will you reach the evil? Would you do away with the offence of trespass? And if so, what is your protection for property?"

"It comes to a simple point though," said Morley, "the Territorialists must at length understand that they cannot at the same time have the profits of a farm and the pleasures of a chase."

At this moment entered Sybil. At the sight of her, the remembrance that they were about to part, nearly overwhelmed Egremont. Her supremacy over his spirit was revealed to him, and nothing but the presence of other persons could have prevented him avowing his entire subjection. His hand trembled as he touched her's, and his eye, searching yet agitated, would have penetrated her serene soul. Gerard and Morley, somewhat withdrawn, pursued their conversation; while Egremont hanging over Sybil, attempted to summon courage to express to her his sad adieu. It was in vain. Alone, perhaps he might have poured forth a passionate farewell. But constrained he became embarrassed; and his conduct was at the same time tender and perplexing. He asked and repeated questions which had already been answered. His thoughts wandered from their conversation but not from her with whom he should have conversed. Once their eyes met, and Sybil observed his suffused with tears. Once he looked round and caught the glance of Morley, instantly withdrawn, but not easy to be forgotten.

Shortly after this and earlier than his wont, Morley rose and wished them good night. He shook hands with Egremont and bade him farewell with some abruptness. Harold who seemed half asleep suddenly sprang from the side of his mistress and gave an agitated bark. Harold was never very friendly to Morley, who now tried to soothe him, but in vain. The dog looked fiercely at him and barked again, but the moment Morley had disappeared, Harold resumed his usual air of proud high-bred gentleness, and thrust his nose into the hand of Egremont, who patted him with fondness.

The departure of Morley was a great relief to Egremont, though the task that was left was still a painful effort. He rose and walked for a moment up and down the room, commenced an unfinished sentence, approached the hearth and leant over the mantel; and then at length extending his hand to Gerard he exclaimed, in a trembling voice, "Best of friends, I must leave Mowedale."

"I am very sorry," said Gerard; "and when?"

"Now," said Egremont.

"Now!" said Sybil.

"Yes; this instant. My summons is urgent. I ought to have left this morning. I came here then to bid you farewell," he said looking at Sybil, "to express to you how deeply I was indebted to you for all your goodness—how dearly I shall cherish the memory of these happy days—the happiest I have ever known;" and his voice faltered. "I came also to leave a kind message for you, my friend, a hope that we might meet again and soon—but your daughter was absent, and I could not leave Mowedale without seeing either of you. So I must contrive to get on through the night."

"Well we lose a very pleasant neighbour," said Gerard; "we shall miss you, I doubt not, eh, Sybil?"

But Sybil had turned away her head; she was leaning over and seemed to be caressing Harold and was silent.

How much Egremont would have liked to have offered or invited correspondence; to have proffered his services when the occasion permitted; to have said or proposed many things that might have cherished their acquaintance or friendship; but embarrassed by his incognito and all its consequent deception, he could do nothing but tenderly express his regret at parting, and speak vaguely and almost mysteriously of their soon again meeting. He held out again his hand to Gerard who shook it heartily: then approaching Sybil, Egremont said, "you have shewn me a thousand kindnesses, which I cherish," he added in a lower tone, "above all human circumstances. Would you deign to let this volume lie upon your table," and he offered Sybil an English translation of Thomas a Kempis, illustrated by some masterpieces. In its first page was written "Sybil, from a faithful friend."

"I accept it," said Sybil with a trembling voice and rather pale, "in remembrance of a friend." She held forth her hand to Egremont, who retained it for an instant, and then bending very low, pressed it to his lips. As with an agitated heart, he hastily crossed the threshold of the cottage, something seemed to hold him back. He turned round. The bloodhound had seized him by the coat and looked up to him with an expression of affectionate remonstrance against his departure. Egremont bent down, caressed Harold and released himself from his grasp.

When Egremont left the cottage, he found the country enveloped in a thick white mist, so that had it not been for some huge black shadows which he recognized as the crests of trees, it would have been very difficult to discriminate the earth from the sky, and the mist thickening as he advanced, even these fallacious landmarks threatened to disappear. He had to walk to Mowbray to catch a night train for London. Every moment was valuable, but the unexpected and increasing obscurity rendered his progress slow and even perilous. The contiguity to the river made every step important. He had according to his calculations proceeded nearly as far as his old residence, and notwithstanding the careless courage of youth and the annoyance of relinquishing a project, intolerable at that season of life, was meditating the expediency of renouncing that night the attempt on Mowbray and of gaining his former quarters for shelter. He stopped, as he had stopped several times before, to calculate rather than to observe. The mist was so thick that he could not see his own extended hand. It was not the first time that it had occurred to him that some one or something was hovering about his course.

"Who is there?" exclaimed Egremont. But no one answered.

He moved on a little, but very slowly. He felt assured that his ear caught a contiguous step. He repeated his interrogatory in a louder tone, but it obtained no response. Again he stopped. Suddenly he was seized; an iron grasp assailed his throat, a hand of steel griped his arm. The unexpected onset hurried him on. The sound of waters assured him that he was approaching the precipitous bank of that part of the river which, from a ledge of pointed rocks, here formed rapids. Vigorous and desperate, Egremont plunged like some strong animal on whom a beast of prey had made a fatal spring. His feet clung to the earth as if they were held by some magnetic power. With his disengaged arm he grappled with his mysterious and unseen foe.

At this moment he heard the deep bay of a hound.

"Harold!" he exclaimed. The dog, invisible, sprang forward and seized upon his assailant. So violent was the impulse that Egremont staggered and fell, but he fell freed from his dark enemy. Stunned and exhausted, some moments elapsed before he was entirely himself. The wind had suddenly changed; a violent gust had partially dispelled the mist; the outline of the landscape was in many places visible. Beneath him were the rapids of the Mowe, over which a watery moon threw a faint, flickering light. Egremont was lying on its precipitous bank; and Harold panting was leaning over him and looking in his face, and sometimes licking him with that tongue which, though not gifted with speech, had spoken so seasonably in the moment of danger.

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