Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 5

"His lordship has not yet rung his bell, gentlemen."

It was the valet of Lord Milford that spoke, addressing from the door of a house in Belgrave Square, about noon, a deputation from the National Convention, consisting of two of its delegates, who waited on the young viscount in common with other members of the legislature, in order to call his particular attention to the National Petition which the Convention had prepared, and which in the course of the session was to be presented by one of the members for Birmingham.

"I fear we are too early for these fine birds," said one delegate to the other. "Who is next on our list?"

"No. 27, — Street, close by; Mr THOROUGH BASE: he ought to be with the people, for his father was only a fiddler; but I understand he is quite an aristocrat and has married a widow of quality."

"Well, knock."

Mr Thorough Base was not at home; had received the card of the delegates apprising him of the honour of their intended visit, but had made up his mind on the subject.

No.18 in the same street received them more courteously. Here resided Mr KREMLIN, who after listening with patience if not with interest, to their statement, apprised them that forms of government were of no consequence, and domestic policy of no interest; that there was only one subject which should engage the attention of public men, because everything depended on it,—that was our external system; and that the only specific for a revival of trade and the contentment of the people, was a general settlement of the boundary questions. Finally, Mr Kremlin urged upon the National Convention to recast their petition with this view, assuring them that on foreign policy they would have the public with them.

The deputation in reply might have referred as an evidence of the general interest excited by questions of foreign policy, to the impossibility even of a leader making a house on one; and to the fact that there are not three men in the House of Commons who even pretend to have any acquaintance with the external circumstances of the country; they might have added, that even in such an assembly Mr Kremlin himself was distinguished for ignorance, for he had only one idea,—and that was wrong.

Their next visit was to WRIGGLE, a member for a metropolitan district, a disciple of Progress, who went with the times, but who took particular good care to ascertain their complexion; and whose movements if expedient could partake of a regressive character. As the Charter might some day turn up trumps as well as so many other unexpected cards and colours, Wriggle gave his adhesion to it, but of course only provisionally; provided that is to say, he might vote against it at present. But he saw no harm in it—not he, and should be prepared to support it when circumstances, that is to say the temper of the times, would permit him. More could hardly be expected from a gentleman in the delicate position in which Wriggle found himself at this moment, for he had solicited a baronetcy of the whigs, and had secretly pledged himself to Taper to vote against them on the impending Jamaica division.

BOMBASTES RIP snubbed them, which was hard, for he had been one of themselves, had written confidential letters in 1831 to the secretary of the Treasury, and "provided his expenses were paid," offered to come up from the manufacturing town he now represented, at the head of a hundred thousand men, and burn down Apsley House. But now Bombastes Rip talked of the great middle class; of public order and public credit. He would have said more to them, but had an appointment in the city, being a most active member of the committee for raising a statue to the Duke of Wellington.

FLOATWELL received them in the politest manner, though he did not agree with them. What he did agree with was difficult to say. Clever, brisk, and bustling, with an university reputation and without patrimony, Floatwell shrunk from the toils of a profession, and in the hurry skurry of reform found himself to his astonishment a parliament man. There he had remained, but why, the Fates alone knew. The fun of such a thing must have evaporated with the novelty. Floatwell had entered public life in complete ignorance of every subject which could possibly engage the attention of a public man. He knew nothing of history, national or constitutional law, had indeed none but puerile acquirements, and had seen nothing of life. Assiduous at committees he gained those superficial habits of business which are competent to the conduct of ordinary affairs, and picked up in time some of the slang of economical questions. Floatwell began at once with a little success, and he kept his little success; nobody envied him it; he hoarded his sixpences without exciting any evil emulation. He was one of those characters who above all things shrink from isolation, and who imagine they are getting on if they are keeping company with some who stick like themselves. He was always an idolater of some great personage who was on the shelf, and who he was convinced, because the great personage assured him of it after dinner, would sooner or later turn out the man. At present, Floatwell swore by Lord Dunderhead; and the game of this little coterie, who dined together and thought they were a party, was to be courteous to the Convention.

After the endurance of an almost interminable lecture on the currency from Mr KITE, who would pledge himself to the charter if the charter would pledge itself to one-pound notes, the two delegates had arrived in Piccadilly, and the next member upon their list was Lord Valentine.

"It is two o'clock," said one of the delegates, "I think we may venture;" so they knocked at the portal of the court yard, and found they were awaited.

A private staircase led to the suite of rooms of Lord Valentine, who lived in the family mansion. The delegates were ushered through an ante-chamber into a saloon which opened into a very fanciful conservatory, where amid tall tropical plants played a fountain. The saloon was hung with blue satin, and adorned with brilliant mirrors: its coved ceiling was richly painted, and its furniture became the rest of its decorations. On one sofa were a number of portfolios, some open, full of drawings of costumes; a table of pietra dura was covered with richly bound volumes that appeared to have been recently referred to; several ancient swords of extreme beauty were lying on a couch; in a corner of the room was a figure in complete armour, black and gold richly inlaid, and grasping in its gauntlet the ancient standard of England.

The two delegates of the National Convention stared at each other, as if to express their surprise that a dweller in such an abode should ever have permitted them to enter it; but ere either of them could venture to speak, Lord Valentine made his appearance.

He was a young man, above the middle height, slender, broad-shouldered, small-waisted, of a graceful presence; he was very fair, with dark blue eyes, bright and intelligent, and features of classic precision; a small Greek cap crowned his long light-brown hair, and he was enveloped in a morning robe of Indian shawls.

"Well, gentlemen," said his lordship, as he invited them to be seated, in a clear and cheerful voice, and with an unaffected tone of frankness which put his guests at their ease; "I promised to see you; well, what have you got to say?"

The delegates made their accustomed statement; they wished to pledge no one; all that the people desired was a respectful discussion of their claims; the national petition, signed by nearly a million and a half of the flower of the working classes, was shortly to be presented to the House of Commons, praying the House to take into consideration the five points in which the working classes deemed their best interests involved; to wit, universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, salaried members, and the abolition of the property qualification.

"And supposing these five points conceded," said Lord Valentine, "what do you mean to do?"

"The people then being at length really represented," replied one of the delegates, "they would decide upon the measures which the interests of the great majority require."

"I am not so clear about that," said Lord Valentine; "that is the very point at issue. I do not think the great majority are the best judges of their own interests. At all events, gentlemen, the respective advantages of aristocracy and democracy are a moot point. Well then, finding the question practically settled in this country, you will excuse me for not wishing to agitate it. I give you complete credit for the sincerity of your convictions; extend the same confidence to me. You are democrats; I am an aristocrat. My family has been ennobled for nearly three centuries; they bore a knightly name before their elevation. They have mainly and materially assisted in making England what it is. They have shed their blood in many battles; I have had two ancestors killed in the command of our fleets. You will not underrate such services, even if you do not appreciate their conduct as statesmen, though that has often been laborious, and sometimes distinguished. The finest trees in England were planted by my family; they raised several of your most beautiful churches; they have built bridges, made roads, dug mines, and constructed canals, and drained a marsh of a million of acres which bears our name to this day, and is now one of the most flourishing portions of the country. You talk of our taxation and our wars; and of your inventions and your industry. Our wars converted an island into an empire, and at any rate developed that industry and stimulated those inventions of which you boast. You tell me that you are the delegates of the unrepresented working classes of Mowbray. Why, what would Mowbray have been if it had not been for your aristocracy and their wars? Your town would not have existed; there would have been no working classes there to send up delegates. In fact you owe your every existence to us. I have told you what my ancestors have done; I am prepared, if the occasion requires it, not to disgrace them; I have inherited their great position, and I tell you fairly, gentlemen, I will not relinquish it without a struggle."

"Will you combat the people in that suit of armour, my lord?" said one of the delegates smiling, but in a tone of kindness and respect.

"That suit of armour has combated for the people before this," said Lord Valentine, "for it stood by Simon de Montfort on the field of Evesham."

"My lord," said the other delegate, "it is well known that you come from a great and honoured race; and we have seen enough to-day to show that in intelligence and spirit you are not unworthy of your ancestry. But the great question, which your lordship has introduced, not us, is not to be decided by a happy instance. Your ancestors may have done great things. What wonder! They were members of a very limited class which had the monopoly of action. And the people, have not they shed their blood in battle, though they may have commanded fleets less often than your lordship's relatives? And these mines and canals that you have excavated and constructed, these woods you have planted, these waters you have drained—had the people no hand in these creations? What share in these great works had that faculty of Labour whose sacred claims we now urge, but which for centuries have been passed over in contemptuous silence? No, my lord, we call upon you to decide this question by the result. The Aristocracy of England have had for three centuries the exercise of power; for the last century and a half that exercise has been uncontrolled; they form at this moment the most prosperous class that the history of the world can furnish: as rich as the Roman senators, with sources of convenience and enjoyment which modern science could alone supply. All this is not denied. Your order stands before Europe the most gorgeous of existing spectacles; though you have of late years dexterously thrown some of the odium of your polity upon that middle class which you despise, and who are despicable only because they imitate you, your tenure of power is not in reality impaired. You govern us still with absolute authority—and you govern the most miserable people on the face of the globe."

"And is this a fair description of the people of England?" said Lord Valentine. "A flash of rhetoric, I presume, that would place them lower than the Portuguese or the Poles, the serfs of Russia or the Lazzaroni of Naples."

"Infinitely lower," said the delegate, "for they are not only degraded, but conscious of their degradation. They no longer believe in any innate difference between the governing and the governed classes of this country. They are sufficiently enlightened to feel they are victims. Compared with the privileged classes of their own land, they are in a lower state than any other population compared with its privileged classes. All is relative, my lord, and believe me, the relations of the working classes of England to its privileged orders are relations of enmity, and therefore of peril."

"The people must have leaders," said Lord Valentine.

"And they have found them," said the delegate.

"When it comes to a push they will follow their nobility," said Lord Valentine.

"Will their nobility lead them?" said the other delegate. "For my part I do not pretend to be a philosopher, and if I saw a Simon de Montfort again I should be content to fight under his banner."

"We have an aristocracy of wealth," said the delegate who had chiefly spoken. "In a progressive civilization wealth is the only means of class distinction: but a new disposition of wealth may remove even this."

"Ah! you want to get at our estates," said Lord Valentine smiling; "but the effort on your part may resolve society into its original elements, and the old sources of distinction may again develope themselves."

"Tall barons will not stand against Paixhans rockets," said the delegate. "Modern science has vindicated the natural equality of man."

"And I must say I am very sorry for it," said the other delegate; "for human strength always seems to me the natural process of settling affairs."

"I am not surprised at your opinion," said Lord Valentine, turning to the delegate and smiling. "I should not be over-glad to meet you in a fray. You stand some inches above six feet, or I am mistaken."

"I was six feet two inches when I stopped growing," said the delegate; "and age has not stolen any of my height yet."

"That suit of armour would fit you," said Lord Valentine, as they all rose.

"And might I ask your lordship," said the tall delegate, "why it is here?"

"I am to represent Richard Coeur de Lion at the Queen's ball," said Lord Valentine; "and before my sovereign I will not don a Drury-Lane cuirass, so I got this up from my father's castle."

"Ah! I almost wish the good old times of Coeur de Lion were here again," said the tall delegate.

"And we should be serfs," said his companion.

"I am not sure of that," said the tall delegate. "At any rate there was the free forest."

"I like that young fellow," said the tall delegate to his companion, as they descended the staircase.

"He has awful prejudices," said his friend.

"Well, well; he has his opinions and we have ours. But he is a man; with clear, straightforward ideas, a frank, noble, presence; and as good-looking a fellow as I ever set eyes on. Where are we now?"

"We have only one more name on our list to-day, and it is at hand. Letter K, No.1, Albany. Another member of the aristocracy, the Honourable Charles Egremont."

"Well, I prefer them, as far as I can judge, to Wriggle, and Rip, and Thorough Base," said the tall delegate laughing. "I dare say we should have found Lord Milford a very jolly fellow, if he had only been up."

"Here we are," said his companion, as he knocked. "Mr Egremont, is he at home?"

"The gentlemen of the deputation? Yes, my master gave particular orders that he was at home to you. Will you walk in, gentlemen?"

"There you see," said the tall delegate. "This would be a lesson to Thorough Base."

They sat down in an antechamber: the servant opened a mahogany folding-door which he shut after him and announced to his master the arrival of the delegates. Egremont was seated in his library, at a round table covered with writing materials, books, and letters. On another table were arranged his parliamentary papers, and piles of blue books. The room was classically furnished. On the mantelpiece were some ancient vases, which he had brought with him from Italy, standing on each side of that picture of Allori of which we have spoken.

The servant returned to the ante-room, and announcing to the delegates that his master was ready to receive them, ushered into the presence of Egremont—WALTER GERARD and STEPHEN MORLEY.

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