Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 6

It is much to be deplored that our sacred buildings are generally closed except at the stated periods of public resort. It is still more to be regretted that when with difficulty entered, there is so much in their arrangements to offend the taste and outrage the feelings. In the tumult of life, a few minutes occasionally passed in the solemn shadow of some lofty and ancient aisle, exercise very often a salutary influence: they purify the heart and elevate the mind; dispel many haunting fancies, and prevent many an act which otherwise might be repented. The church would in this light still afford us a sanctuary; not against the power of the law but against the violence of our own will; not against the passions of man but against our own.

The Abbey of Westminster rises amid the strife of factions. Around its consecrated precinct some of the boldest and some of the worst deeds have been achieved or perpetrated: sacrilege, rapine, murder, and treason. Here robbery has been practised on the greatest scale known in modern ages: here ten thousand manors belonging to the order of the Templars, without any proof, scarcely with a pretext, were forfeited in one day and divided among the monarch and his chief nobles; here the great estate of the church, which, whatever its articles of faith, belonged and still belongs to the people, was seized at various times, under various pretences, by an assembly that continually changed the religion of their country and their own by a parliamentary majority, but which never refunded the booty. Here too was brought forth that monstrous conception which even patrician Rome in its most ruthless period never equalled—the mortgaging of the industry of the country to enrich and to protect property; an act which is now bringing its retributive consequences in a degraded and alienated population. Here too have the innocent been impeached and hunted to death; and a virtuous and able monarch martyred, because, among other benefits projected for his people, he was of opinion that it was more for their advantage that the economic service of the state should be supplied by direct taxation levied by an individual known to all, than by indirect taxation, raised by an irresponsible and fluctuating assembly. But thanks to parliamentary patriotism, the people of England were saved from ship-money, which money the wealthy paid, and only got in its stead the customs and excise, which the poor mainly supply. Rightly was King Charles surnamed the Martyr; for he was the holocaust of direct taxation. Never yet did man lay down his heroic life for so great a cause: the cause of the Church and the cause of the Poor.

Even now in the quiet times in which we live, when public robbery is out of fashion and takes the milder title of a commission of inquiry, and when there is no treason except voting against a Minister, who, though he may have changed all the policy which you have been elected to support, expects your vote and confidence all the same; even in this age of mean passions and petty risks, it is something to step aside from Palace Yard and instead of listening to a dull debate, where the facts are only a repetition of the blue books you have already read, and the fancy an ingenious appeal to the recrimination of Hansard, to enter the old abbey and listen to an anthem!

This was a favourite habit of Egremont, and though the mean discipline and sordid arrangements of the ecclesiastical body to which the guardianship of the beautiful edifice is intrusted, have certainly done all that could injure and impair the holy genius of the place, it still was a habit often full of charm and consolation.

There is not perhaps another metropolitan population in the world that would tolerate such conduct as is pursued to "that great lubber, the public" by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, and submit in silence to be shut out from the only building in the two cities which is worthy of the name of a cathedral. But the British public will bear anything; they are so busy in speculating in railroad shares.

When Egremont had entered on his first visit to the Abbey by the south transept, and beheld the boards and the spikes with which he seemed to be environed as if the Abbey were in a state of siege; iron gates shutting him out from the solemn nave and the shadowy aisles; scarcely a glimpse to be caught of a single window; while on a dirty form, some noisy vergers sate like ticket-porters or babbled like tapsters at their ease,—the visions of abbatial perfection in which he had early and often indulged among the ruins of Marney rose on his outraged sense, and he was then about hastily to retire from the scene he had so long purposed to visit, when suddenly the organ burst forth, a celestial symphony floated in the lofty roof, and voices of plaintive melody blended with the swelling sounds. He was fixed to the spot.

Perhaps it was some similar feeling that influenced another individual on the day after the visit of the deputation to Egremont. The sun, though in his summer heaven he had still a long course, had passed his meridian by many hours, the service was performing in the choir, and a few persons entering by the door into that part of the Abbey Church which is so well known by the name of Poet's Corner, proceeded through the unseemly stockade which the chapter have erected, and took their seats. One only, a female, declined to pass, notwithstanding the officious admonitions of the vergers that she had better move on, but approaching the iron grating that shut her out from the body of the church, looked wistfully down the long dim perspective of the beautiful southern aisle. And thus motionless she remained in contemplation, or it might be prayer, while the solemn peals of the organ and the sweet voices of the choir enjoyed that holy liberty for which she sighed, and seemed to wander at their will in every sacred recess and consecrated corner.

The sounds—those mystical and thrilling sounds that at once elevate the soul and touch the heart—ceased, the chaunting of the service recommenced; the motionless form moved; and as she moved Egremont came forth from the choir, and his eye was at once caught by the symmetry of her shape and the picturesque position which she gracefully occupied; still gazing through that grate, while the light pouring through the western window, suffused the body of the church with a soft radiance, just touching the head of the unknown with a kind of halo. Egremont approached the transept door with a lingering pace, so that the stranger, who he observed was preparing to leave the church, might overtake him. As he reached the door, anxious to assure himself that he was not mistaken, he turned round and his eye at once caught the face of Sybil. He started, he trembled; she was not two yards distant, she evidently recognised him; he held open the swinging postern of the Abbey that she might pass, which she did and then stopped on the outside, and said "Mr Franklin!"

It was therefore clear that her father had not thought fit, or had not yet had an opportunity, to communicate to Sybil the interview of yesterday. Egremont was still Mr Franklin. This was perplexing. Egremont would like to have been saved the pain and awkwardness of the avowal, yet it must be made, though not with unnecessary crudeness. And so at present he only expressed his delight, the unexpected delight he experienced at their meeting. And then he walked on by her side.

"Indeed," said Sybil, "I can easily imagine you must have been surprised at seeing me in this great city. But many things, strange and unforeseen, have happened to us since you were at Mowedale. You know, of course you with your pursuits must know, that the People have at length resolved to summon their own parliament in Westminster. The people of Mowbray had to send up two delegates to the Convention, and they chose my father for one of them. For so great is their confidence in him none other would content them."

"He must have made a great sacrifice in coming?" said Egremont.

"Oh! what are sacrifices in such a cause!" said Sybil. "Yes; he made great sacrifices," she continued earnestly; "great sacrifices, and I am proud of them. Our home, which was a happy home, is gone; he has quitted the Traffords to whom we were knit by many, many ties," and her voice faltered—"and for whom, I know well he would have perilled his life. And now we are parted," said Sybil, with a sigh, "perhaps for ever. They offered to receive me under their roof," she continued, with emotion. "Had I needed shelter there was another roof which has long awaited me: but I could not leave my father at such a moment. He appealed to me: and I am here. All I desire, all I live for, is to soothe and support him in his great struggle; and I should die content if the People were only free, and a Gerard had freed them."

Egremont mused: he must disclose all, yet how embarrassing to enter into such explanations in a public thoroughfare! Should he bid her after a-while farewell, and then make his confession in writing? Should he at once accompany her home, and there offer his perplexing explanations? Or should he acknowledge his interview of yesterday with Gerard, and then leave the rest to the natural consequences of that acknowledgment when Sybil met her father! Thus pondering, Egremont and Sybil, quitting the court of the Abbey, entered Abingdon Street.

"Let me walk home with you," said Egremont, as Sybil seemed to intimate her intention here to separate.

"My father is not there," said Sybil; "but I will not fail to tell him that I have met his old companion."

"Would he had been as frank!" thought Egremont. And must he quit her in this way. Never! "You must indeed let me attend you!" he said aloud.

"It is not far," said Sybil. "We live almost in the Precinct—in an old house with some kind old people, the brother of one of the nuns of Mowbray. The nearest way to it is straight along this street, but that is too bustling for me. I have discovered," she added with a smile, "a more tranquil path." And guided by her they turned up College Street.

"And how long have you been in London?"

"A fortnight. 'Tis a great prison. How strange it is that, in a vast city like this, one can scarcely walk alone?"

"You want Harold," said Egremont. "How is that most faithful of friends?"

"Poor Harold! To part with him too was a pang."

"I fear your hours must be heavy," said Egremont.

"Oh! no," said Sybil, "there is so much at stake; so much to hear the moment my father returns. I take so much interest too in their discussions; and sometimes I go to hear him speak. None of them can compare with him. It seems to me that it would be impossible to resist our claims if our rulers only heard them from his lips."

Egremont smiled. "Your Convention is in its bloom, or rather its bud," he said; "all is fresh and pure now; but a little while and it will find the fate of all popular assemblies. You will have factions."

"But why?" said Sybil. "They are the real representatives of the people, and all that the people want is justice; that Labour should be as much respected by law and society as Property."

While they thus conversed they passed through several clean, still streets, that had rather the appearance of streets in a very quiet country town than of abodes in the greatest city in the world, and in the vicinity of palaces and parliaments. Rarely was a shop to be remarked among the neat little tenements, many of them built of curious old brick, and all of them raised without any regard to symmetry or proportion. Not the sound of a single wheel was heard; sometimes not a single individual was visible or stirring. Making a circuitous course through this tranquil and orderly district, they at last found themselves in an open place in the centre of which rose a church of vast proportions, and built of hewn stone in that stately, not to say ponderous, style which Vanburgh introduced. The area round it, which was sufficiently ample, was formed by buildings, generally of a very mean character: the long back premises of a carpenter, the straggling yard of a hackney-man: sometimes a small, narrow isolated private residence, like a waterspout in which a rat might reside: sometimes a group of houses of more pretension. In the extreme corner of this area, which was dignified by the name of Smith's Square, instead of taking a more appropriate title from the church of St John which it encircled, was a large old house, that had been masked at the beginning of the century with a modern front of pale-coloured bricks, but which still stood in its courtyard surrounded by its iron railings, withdrawn as it were from the vulgar gaze like an individual who had known higher fortunes, and blending with his humility something of the reserve which is prompted by the memory of vanished greatness.

"This is my home," said Sybil. "It is a still place and suits us well."

Near the house was a narrow passage which was a thoroughfare into the most populous quarter of the neighbourhood. As Egremont was opening the gate of the courtyard, Gerard ascended the steps of this passage and approached them.

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