During the week of political agitation which terminated with the inglorious catastrophe of the Bedchamber plot, Sybil remained tranquil, and would have been scarcely conscious of what was disturbing so many right honourable hearts, had it not been for the incidental notice of their transactions by her father and his friends. To the chartists indeed the factious embroilment at first was of no great moment, except as the breaking up and formation of cabinets might delay the presentation of the National Petition. They had long ceased to distinguish between the two parties who then and now contend for power. And they were tight. Between the noble lord who goes out and the right honourable gentleman who comes in, where is the distinctive principle? A shadowy difference may be simulated in opposition, to serve a cry and stimulate the hustings: but the mask is not even worn in Downing Street: and the conscientious conservative seeks in the pigeon-holes of a whig bureau for the measures against which for ten years he has been sanctioning by the speaking silence of an approving nod, a general wail of frenzied alarm.
Once it was otherwise; once the people recognised a party in the state whose principles identified them with the rights and privileges of the multitude: but when they found the parochial constitution of the country sacrificed without a struggle, and a rude assault made on all local influences in order to establish a severely organised centralisation, a blow was given to the influence of the priest and of the gentleman, the ancient champions of the people against arbitrary courts and rapacious parliaments, from which they will find that it requires no ordinary courage and wisdom to recover.
The unexpected termination of the events of May, 1839, in the re-establishment in power of a party confessedly too weak to carry on the parliamentary government of the country, was viewed however by the chartists in a very different spirit to that with which they had witnessed the outbreak of these transactions. It had unquestionably a tendency to animate their efforts, and imparted a bolder tone to their future plans and movements. They were encouraged to try a fall with a feeble administration. Gerard from this moment became engrossed in affairs; his correspondence greatly increased; and he was so much occupied that Sybil saw daily less and less of her father.
It was on the morning after the day that Hatton had made his first and unlooked-for visit in Smith's Square, some of the delegates who had caught the rumour of the resignation of the whigs had called early on Gerard, and he had soon after left the house in their company; and Sybil was alone. The strange incidents of the preceding day were revolving in her mind, as her eye wandered vaguely over her book. The presence of that Hatton who had so often and in such different scenes occupied their conversation; the re-appearance of that stranger, whose unexpected entrance into their little world had eighteen months ago so often lent interest and pleasure to their life—these were materials for pensive sentiment. Mr Franklin had left some gracious memories with Sybil; the natural legacy of one so refined, intelligent, and gentle, whose temper seemed never ruffled, and who evidently so sincerely relished their society. Mowedale rose before her in all the golden beauty of its autumnal hour; their wild rambles and hearty greetings and earnest converse, when her father returned from his daily duties and his eye kindled with pleasure as the accustomed knock announced the arrival of his almost daily companion. In spite of the excitement of the passing moment, its high hopes and glorious aspirations, and visions perchance of greatness and of power, the eye of Sybil was dimmed with emotion as she recalled that innocent and tranquil dream.
Her father had heard from Franklin after his departure more than once; but his letters, though abounding in frank expressions of deep interest in the welfare of Gerard and his daughter, were in some degree constrained: a kind of reserve seemed to envelope him; they never learnt anything of his life and duties: he seemed sometimes as it were meditating a departure from his country. There was undoubtedly about him something mysterious and unsatisfactory. Morley was of opinion that he was a spy; Gerard, less suspicious, ultimately concluded that he was harassed by his creditors, and when at Mowedale was probably hiding from them.
And now the mystery was at length dissolved. And what an explanation! A Norman, a noble, an oppressor of the people, a plunderer of the church—all the characters and capacities that Sybil had been bred up to look upon with fear and aversion, and to recognise as the authors of the degradation of her race.
Sybil sighed: the door opened and Egremont stood before her. The blood rose to her cheek, her heart trembled; for the first time in his presence she felt embarrassed and constrained. His countenance on the contrary was collected; serious and pale.
"I am an intruder," he said advancing, "but I wish much to speak to you," and he seated himself near her. There was a momentary pause. "You seemed to treat with scorn yesterday," resumed Egremont in accents less sustained, "the belief that sympathy was independent of the mere accidents of position. Pardon me, Sybil, but even you may be prejudiced." He paused.
"I should be sorry to treat anything you said with scorn," replied Sybil in a subdued tone. "Many things happened yesterday," she added, "which might be offered as some excuse for an unguarded word."
"Would that it had been unguarded!" said Egremont in a voice of melancholy. "I could have endured it with less repining. No, Sybil, I have known you, I have had the happiness and the sorrow of knowing you too well to doubt the convictions of your mind, or to believe that they can be lightly removed, and yet I would strive to remove them. You look upon me as an enemy, as a natural foe, because I am born among the privileged. I am a man, Sybil, as well as a noble." Again he paused; she looked down, but did not speak.
"And can I not feel for men, my fellows, whatever be their lot? I know you will deny it; but you are in error, Sybil; you have formed your opinions upon tradition, not upon experience. The world that exists is not the world of which you have read; the class that calls itself your superior is not the same class as ruled in the time of your fathers. There is a change in them as in all other things, and I participate that change. I shared it before I knew you, Sybil; and if it touched me then, at least believe it does not influence me less now."
"If there be a change," said Sybil, "it is because in some degree the People have learnt their strength."
"Ah! dismiss from your mind those fallacious fancies," said Egremont. "The People are not strong; the People never can be strong. Their attempts at self-vindication will end only in their suffering and confusion. It is civilisation that has effected, that is effecting this change. It is that increased knowledge of themselves that teaches the educated their social duties. There is a dayspring in the history of this nation which those who are on the mountain tops can as yet perhaps only recognize. You deem you are in darkness, and I see a dawn. The new generation of the aristocracy of England are not tyrants, not oppressors, Sybil, as you persist in believing. Their intelligence, better than that, their hearts are open to the responsibility of their position. But the work that is before them is no holiday-work. It is not the fever of superficial impulse that can remove the deep-fixed barriers of centuries of ignorance and crime. Enough that their sympathies are awakened; time and thought will bring the rest. They are the natural leaders of the People, Sybil; believe me they are the only ones."
"The leaders of the People are those whom the People trust," said Sybil rather haughtily.
"And who may betray them," said Egremont.
"Betray them!" exclaimed Sybil. "And can you believe that my father—"
"No, no; you can feel, Sybil, though I cannot express, how much I honour your father. But he stands alone in the singleness and purity of his heart. Who surround him?"
"Those whom the People have also chosen; and from a like confidence in their virtues and abilities. They are a senate supported by the sympathy of millions, with only one object in view—the emancipation of their race. It is a sublime spectacle, these delegates of labour advocating the sacred cause in a manner which might shame your haughty factions. What can resist a demonstration so truly national! What can withstand the supremacy of its moral power!"
Her eye met the glance of Egremont. That brow full of thought and majesty was fixed on his. He encountered that face radiant as a seraph's; those dark eyes flashing with the inspiration of the martyr.
Egremont rose, moved slowly to the window, gazed in abstraction for a few moments on the little garden with its dank turf that no foot ever trod, its mutilated statue and its mouldering frescoes. What a silence; how profound! What a prospect: how drear! Suddenly he turned, and advancing with a more rapid pace: he approached Sybil. Her head was averted, and leaning on her left arm she seemed lost in reverie. Egremont fell upon his knee and gently taking her hand he pressed it to his lips. She started, she looked round, agitated, alarmed, while he breathed forth in tremulous accents, "Let me express to you my adoration!
"Ah! not now for the first time, but for ever; from the moment I first beheld you in the starlit arch of Marney has your spirit ruled my being and softened every spring of my affections. I followed you to your home, and lived for a time content in the silent worship of your nature. When I came the last morning to the cottage, it was to tell, and to ask, all. Since then for a moment your image has never been absent from my consciousness; your picture consecrates my hearth and your approval has been the spur of my career. Do not reject my love; it is deep as your nature, and fervent as my own. Banish those prejudices that have embittered your existence, and if persisted in may wither mine. Deign to retain this hand! If I be a noble I have none of the accidents of nobility: I cannot offer you wealth, splendour, or power; but I can offer you the devotion of an entranced being—aspirations that you shall guide—an ambition that you shall govern!"
"These words are mystical and wild," said Sybil with an amazed air; "they come upon me with convulsive suddenness." And she paused for an instant, collecting as it were her mind with an expression almost of pain upon her countenance. "These changes of life are so strange and rapid that it seems to me I can scarcely meet them. You are Lord Marney's brother; it was but yesterday—only but yesterday—I learnt it. I thought then I had lost your friendship, and now you speak of—love!
"Love of me! Retain your hand and share your life and fortunes! You forget what I am. But though I learnt only yesterday what you are, I will not be so remiss. Once you wrote upon a page you were my faithful friend: and I have pondered over that line with kindness often. I will be your faithful friend; I will recall you to yourself. I will at least not bring you shame and degradation."
"O! Sybil, beloved, beautiful Sybil—not such bitter words; no, no!"
"No bitterness to you! that would indeed be harsh," and she covered with her hand her streaming eyes.
"Why what is this?" after a pause and with an effort she exclaimed. "An union between the child and brother of nobles and a daughter of the people! Estrangement from your family, and with cause, their hopes destroyed, their pride outraged; alienation from your order, and justly, all their prejudices insulted. You will forfeit every source of worldly content and cast off every spring of social success. Society for you will become a great confederation to deprive you of self-complacency. And rightly. Will you not be a traitor to the cause? No, no, kind friend, for such I'll call you. Your opinion of me, too good and great as I feel it, touches me deeply. I am not used to such passages in life; I have read of such. Pardon me, feel for me, if I receive them with some disorder. They sound to me for the first time—and for the last. Perhaps they ought never to have reached my ear. No matter now—I have a life of penitence before me, and I trust I shall be pardoned." And she wept.
"You have indeed punished me for the fatal accident of birth, if it deprives me of you."
"Not so," she added weeping; "I shall never be the bride of earth; and but for one whose claims though earthly are to me irresistible, I should have ere this forgotten my hereditary sorrows in the cloister."
All this time Egremont had retained her hand, which she had not attempted to withdraw. He had bent his head over it as she spoke—it was touched with his tears. For some moments there was silence; then looking up and in a smothered voice Egremont made one more effort to induce Sybil to consider his suit. He combated her views as to the importance to him of the sympathies of his family and of society; he detailed to her his hopes and plans for their future welfare; he dwelt with passionate eloquence on his abounding love. But with a solemn sweetness, and as it were a tender inflexibility, the tears trickling down her beautiful cheek, and pressing his hand in both of hers, she subdued and put aside all his efforts.
"Believe me," she said, "the gulf is impassable."