Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 8

We left Sybil and Egremont just at the moment that Gerard arrived at the very threshold which they had themselves reached.

"Ah! my father," exclaimed Sybil, and then with a faint blush of which she was perhaps unconscious, she added, as if apprehensive Gerard would not recall his old companion, "you remember Mr Franklin?"

"This gentleman and myself had the pleasure of meeting yesterday," said Gerard embarrassed, while Egremont himself changed colour and was infinitely confused. Sybil felt surprised that her father should have met Mr Franklin and not have mentioned a circumstance naturally interesting to her. Egremont was about to speak when the street-door was opened. And were they to part again, and no explanation? And was Sybil to be left with her father, who was evidently in no haste, perhaps had no great tendency, to give that explanation? Every feeling of an ingenuous spirit urged Egremont personally to terminate this prolonged misconception.

"You will permit me, I hope," he said, appealing as much to Gerard as to his daughter, "to enter with you for a few moments."

It was not possible to resist such a request, yet it was conceded on the part of Gerard with no cordiality. So they entered the large gloomy hail of the house, and towards the end of a long passage Gerard opened a door, and they all went into a spacious melancholy room, situate at the back of the house, and looking upon a small square plot of dank grass, in the midst of which rose a very weather-stained Cupid, with one arm broken, and the other raised in the air with a long shell to its mouth. It seemed that in old days it might have been a fountain. At the end of the plot the blind side of a house offered a high wall which had once been painted in fresco. Though much of the coloured plaster had cracked and peeled away, and all that remained was stained and faded, still some traces of the original design might yet be detected: festive wreaths, the colonnades and perspective of a palace.

The wails of the room itself were waincsotted in pannels of dark-stained wood; the window-curtains were of coarse green worsted, and encrusted with dust so ancient and irremovable, that it presented almost a lava-like appearance; the carpet that had once been bright and showy, was entirely threadbare, and had become grey with age. There were several heavy mahogany arm-chairs in the room, a Pembroke table, and an immense unwieldy sideboard, garnished with a few wine-glasses of a deep blue colour. Over the lofty uncouth mantel was a portrait of the Marquis of Granby, which might have been a sign, and opposite to him, over the sideboard, was a large tawdry-coloured print, by Bunbury, of Ranelagh in its most festive hour. The general appearance of the room however though dingy, was not squalid: and what with its spaciousness, its extreme repose, and the associations raised by such few images as it did suggest, the impression on the mind of the spectator was far from unpleasing, partaking indeed of that vague melancholy which springs from the contemplation of the past, and which at all times softens the spirit.

Gerard walked to the window and looked at the grass-plot; Sybil seating herself, invited their guest to follow her example; Egremont, not without agitation, seemed suddenly to make an effort to collect himself, and then, in a voice not distinguished by its accustomed clearness, he said, "I explained yesterday to one who I hope I may still call my friend, why I assumed a name to which I have no right."

Sybil started a little, slightly stared, but did not speak.

"I should be happy if you also would give me credit, in taking that step, at least for motives of which I need not be ashamed; even," he added in a hesitating voice, "even if you deemed my conduct indiscreet."

Their eyes met: astonishment was imprinted on the countenance of Sybil, but she uttered not a word; and her father, whose back was turned to them, did not move.

"I was told," continued Egremont, "that an impassable gulf divided the Rich from the Poor; I was told that the Privileged and the People formed Two Nations, governed by different laws, influenced by different manners, with no thoughts or sympathies in common; with an innate inability of mutual comprehension. I believed that if this were indeed the case, the ruin of our common country was at hand; I would have endeavoured, feebly perchance, but not without zeal, to resist such a catastrophe; I possessed a station which entailed on me some portion of its responsibility: to obtain that knowledge which could alone qualify me for beneficial action, I resolved to live without suspicion among my fellow-subjects who were estranged from me; even void of all celebrity as I am, I could not have done that without suspicion, had I been known; they would have recoiled from my class and my name, as you yourself recoiled, Sybil, when they were once accidentally mentioned before you. These are the reasons, these the feelings, which impelled, I will not say justified, me to pass your threshold under a feigned name. I entreat you to judge kindly of my conduct; to pardon me: and not to make me feel the bitterness that I have forfeited the good opinion of one for whom, under all circumstances and in all situations, I must ever feel the highest conceivable respect,—I would say a reverential regard."

His tones of passionate emotion ceased. Sybil, with a countenance beautiful and disturbed, gazed at him for an instant, and seemed about to speak, but her trembling lips refused the office; then with an effort, turning to Gerard, she said, "My father, I am amazed; tell me, then, who is this gentleman who addresses me?"

"The brother of Lord Marney, Sybil," said Gerard, turning to her.

"The brother of Lord Marney!" repeated Sybil, with an air almost of stupor.

"Yes," said Egremont: "a member of that family of sacrilege, of those oppressors of the people, whom you have denounced to me with such withering scorn."

The elbow of Sybil rested on the arm of her chair, and her cheek upon her hand; as Egremont said these words she shaded her face, which was thus entirely unseen: for some moments there was silence. Then looking up with an expression grave but serene, and as if she had just emerged from some deep thinking, Sybil said, "I am sorry for my words; sorry for the pain I unconsciously gave you; sorry indeed for all that has past: and that my father has lost a pleasant friend."

"And why should he be lost?" said Egremont mournfully, and yet with tenderness. "Why should we not still befriends?"

"Oh, sir!" said Sybil, haughtily; "I am one of those who believe the gulf is impassable. Yes," she added, slightly but with singular grace waving her hands, and somewhat turning away her head, "utterly impassable."

There are tumults of the mind when like the great convulsions of nature all seems anarchy and returning chaos, yet often in those moments of vast disturbance, as in the material strife itself, some new principle of order, or some new impulse of conduct, develops itself, and controls and regulates and brings to an harmonious consequence, passions and elements which seemed only to threaten despair and subversion. So it was with Egremont. He looked for a moment in despair upon this maiden walled out from sympathy by prejudices and convictions more impassable than all the mere consequences of class. He looked for a moment, but only for a moment, in despair. He found in his tortured spirit energies that responded to the exigency of the occasion. Even the otherwise embarrassing presence of Gerard would not have prevented—but just at this moment the door opened, and Morley and another person entered the room.

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