Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 1

"Terrible news from Birmingham," said Mr Egerton at Brookes'. "They have massacred the police, beat off the military, and sacked the town. News just arrived."

"I have known it these two hours," said a grey-headed gentleman, speaking without taking his eyes off the newspaper. "There is a cabinet sitting now."

"Well I always said so," said Mr Egerton, "our fellows ought to have put down that Convention."

"It is deuced lucky," said Mr Berners, "that the Bedchamber business is over, and we are all right. This affair in the midst of the Jamaica hitch would have been fatal to us."

"These chartists evidently act upon a system," said Mr Egerton. "You see they were perfectly quiet till the National Petition was presented and debated; and now, almost simultaneously with our refusing to consider their petition, we have news of this outbreak."

"I hope they will not spread," said the grey-headed gentleman. "There are not troops enough in the country if there be anything like a general movement. I hear they have sent the guards down by a special train, and a hundred more of the police. London is not over-garrisoned."

"They are always ready for a riot at Birmingham," said a Warwickshire peer. "Trade is very bad there and they suffer a good deal. But I should think it would not go farther."

"I am told," said the grey-headed gentleman, "that business is getting slack in all the districts."

"It might be better," said Mr Egerton, "but they have got work." Here several gentlemen entered, enquiring whether the evening papers were in and what was the news from Birmingham.

"I am told," said one of them, "that the police were regularly smashed."

"Is it true that the military were really beat off?"

"Quite untrue: the fact is there were no proper preparations; the town was taken by surprise, the magistrates lost their heads; the people were masters of the place; and when the police did act, they were met by a triumphant populace, who two hours before would have fled before them. They say they have burnt down above forty houses."

"It is a bad thing—this beating the police," said the grey-headed gentleman.

"But what is the present state of affairs?" enquired Mr Berners. "Are the rioters put down?"

"Not in the least," said Mr Egerton, "as I hear. They are encamped in the Bull Ring amid smoking ruins, and breathe nothing but havoc."

"Well, I voted for taking the National Petition into consideration," said Mr Berners. "It could do us no harm, and would have kept things quiet."

"So did every fellow on our side," said Mr Egerton, "who was not in office or about to be. Well, Heaven knows what may come next. The Charter may some day be as popular in this club as the Reform Act."

"The oddest thing in that debate," said Mr Berners, "was Egremont's move."

"I saw Marney last night at Lady St Julians," said Mr Egerton, "and congratulated him on his brother's speech. He looked daggers, and grinned like a ghoul."

"It was a very remarkable speech—that of Egremont," said the grey-headed gentleman. "I wonder what he wants."

"I think he must be going to turn radical," said the Warwickshire peer.

"Why the whole speech was against radicalism," said Mr Egerton.

"Ah, then he is going to turn whig, I suppose."

"He is ultra anti-whig," said Egerton.

"Then what the deuce is he?" said Mr Berners.

"Not a conservative certainly, for Lady St Julians does nothing but abuse him."

"I suppose he is crotchetty," suggested the Warwickshire noble.

"That speech of Egremont was the most really democratic speech that I ever read," said the grey-headed gentleman. "How was it listened to?"

"Oh capitally," said Mr Egerton. "He has very seldom spoken before and always slightly though well. He was listened to with mute attention; never was a better house. I should say made a great impression, though no one knew exactly what he was after."

"What does he mean by obtaining the results of the charter without the intervention of its machinery?" enquired Lord Loraine, a mild, middle-aged, lounging, languid man, who passed his life in crossing from Brookes' to Boodle's and from Boodle's to Brookes', and testing the comparative intelligence of these two celebrated bodies; himself gifted with no ordinary abilities cultivated with no ordinary care, but the victim of sauntering, his sultana queen, as it was, according to Lord Halifax, of the second Charles Stuart.

"He spoke throughout in an exoteric vein," said the grey-headed gentleman, "and I apprehend was not very sure of his audience; but I took him to mean, indeed it was the gist of the speech, that if you wished for a time to retain your political power, you could only effect your purpose by securing for the people greater social felicity."

"Well, that is sheer radicalism," said the Warwickshire peer, "pretending that the People can be better off than they are, is radicalism and nothing else."

"I fear, if that be radicalism," said Lord Loraine, "we must all take a leaf out of the same book. Sloane was saying at Boodle's just now that he looked forward to the winter in his country with horror."

"And they have no manufactures there," said Mr Egerton.

"Sloane was always a croaker," said the Warwickshire peer. "He always said the New Poor Law would not act, and there is no part of the country where it works so well as his own."

"They say at Boodle's there is to be an increase to the army," said Lord Loraine, "ten thousand men immediately; decided on by the cabinet this afternoon."

"It could hardly have leaked out by this time," said the grey-headed gentleman. "The cabinet were sitting less than an hour ago."

"They have been up a good hour," said Lord Loraine, "quite long enough for their decisions to be known in St James's Street. In the good old times, George Farnley used always to walk from Downing Street to this place the moment the council was up and tell us everything."

"Ah! those were the good old gentleman-like times," said Mr Berners, "when members of Parliament had nobody to please and ministers of State nothing to do."

The riots of Birmingham occurred two months after the events that closed our last volume. That period, as far as the obvious movements of the chartists were concerned, had been passed in preparations for the presentation and discussion of the National Petition, which the parliamentary embroilments of the spring of that year had hitherto procrastinated and prevented. The petition was ultimately carried down to Westminster on a triumphal car accompanied by all the delegates of the Convention in solemn procession. It was necessary to construct a machine in order to introduce the huge bulk of parchment signed by a million and a half of persons, into the House of Commons, and thus supported, its vast form remained on the floor of the House during the discussion. The House after a debate which was not deemed by the people commensurate with the importance of the occasion, decided on rejecting the prayer of the Petition, and from that moment the party in the Convention who advocated a recourse to physical force in order to obtain their purpose, was in the ascendant. The National Petition and the belief that although its objects would not at present be obtained, still that a solemn and prolonged debate on its prayer would at least hold out to the working classes the hope that their rights might from that date rank among the acknowledged subjects of parliamentary discussion and ultimately by the force of discussion be recognized, as other rights of other portions of the people once equally disputed, had been the means by which the party in the Convention who upheld on all occasions the supremacy of moral power had been able to curb the energetic and reckless minority, who derided from the first all other methods but terror and violence as effective of their end. The hopes of all, the vanity of many, were frustrated and shocked by finding that the exertions and expenditure of long months were not only fruitless, but had not even attracted as numerous an assembly or excited as much interest, as an ordinary party struggle on some petty point of factitious interest forgotten as soon as fought. The attention of the working classes was especially called by their leaders to the contrast between the interest occasioned by the endangered constitution of Jamaica, a petty and exhausted colony, and the claims for the same constitutional rights by the working millions of England. In the first instance, not a member was absent from his place; men were brought indeed from distant capitals to participate in the struggle and to decide it; the debate lasted for days, almost for weeks; not a public man of light and leading in the country withheld the expression of his opinion; the fate of governments was involved in it; cabinets were overthrown and reconstructed in the throes and tumult of the strife, and for the first time for a long period the Sovereign personally interposed in public transactions with a significance of character, which made the working classes almost believe that the privileged had at last found a master, and the unfranchished regained their natural chief. The mean position which the Saxon multitude occupied as distinguished from the Jamaica planters sunk deep into their hearts. From that moment all hope of relief from the demonstration of a high moral conduct in the millions, and the exhibition of that well-regulated order of public life which would intimate their fitness for the possession and fulfilment of public rights, vanished. The party of violence, a small minority as is usually the case, but consisting of men of determined character, triumphed; and the outbreak at Birmingham was the first consequence of those reckless councils that were destined in the course of the ensuing years to inflict on the working classes of this country so much suffering and disaster.

It was about this time, a balmy morning of July, that Sybil, tempted by the soft sunshine, and a longing for the sight of flowers and turf and the spread of winding waters, went forth from her gloomy domicile to those beautiful gardens that bloom in that once melancholy region of marsh, celebrated in old days only for its Dutch canal and its Chinese bridge, and now not unworthy of the royal park that incloses them.. Except here and there a pretty nursery-maid with her interesting charge; some beautiful child with nodding plume, immense bow, and gorgeous sash; the gardens were vacant. Indeed it was only at this early hour, that Sybil found from experience, that it was agreeable in London for a woman unaccompanied to venture abroad. There is no European city where our fair sisters are so little independent as in our metropolis; to our shame.

Something of the renovating influence of a beautiful nature was needed by the daughter of Gerard. She was at this moment anxious and dispirited. The outbreak at Birmingham, the conviction that such proceedings must ultimately prove fatal to the cause to which she was devoted, the dark apprehension that her father was in some manner implicated in this movement, that had commenced with so much public disaster, and which menaced consequences still more awful, all these events, and fears, and sad forebodings, acted with immense influence on a temperament which, though gifted with even a sublime courage, was singularly sensitive. The quick and teeming imagination of Sybil conjured up a thousand fears which were in some degree unfounded, in a great degree exaggerated, but this is the inevitable lot of the creative mind practising on the inexperienced.

The shock too had been sudden. The two months that had elapsed since she had parted, as she supposed for ever, from Egremont, while they had not less abounded than the preceding time in that pleasing public excitement which her father's career, in her estimation alike useful, honourable, and distinguished, occasioned her, had been fruitful in some sources of satisfaction of a softer and more domestic character. The acquaintance of Hatton, of whom they saw a great deal, had very much contributed to the increased amenity of her life. He was a most agreeable, instructive, and obliging companion; who seemed peculiarly to possess the art of making life pleasant by the adroit management of unobtrusive resources. He lent Sybil books; and all that he recommended to her notice, were of a kind that harmonized with her sentiment and taste. He furnished her from his library with splendid works of art, illustrative of those periods of our history and those choice and costly edifices which were associated with her fondest thought and fancy. He placed in her room the best periodical literature of the day, which for her was a new world; he furnished her with newspapers whose columns of discussion taught her, that the opinions she had embraced were not unquestioned: as she had never seen a journal in her life before, except a stray number of the "Mowbray Phalanx," or the metropolitan publication which was devoted to the cause of the National Convention, and reported her father's speeches, the effect of this reading on her intelligence was, to say the least, suggestive.

Many a morning too when Gerard was disengaged, Hatton would propose that they should show Sybil something of the splendour or the rarities of the metropolis; its public buildings, museums, and galleries of art. Sybil, though uninstructed in painting, had that native taste which requires only observation to arrive at true results. She was much interested with all she saw and all that occurred, and her gratification was heightened by the society of an individual who not only sympathised with all she felt, but who, if she made an inquiry, was ever ready with an instructive reply. Hatton poured forth the taste and treasures of a well-stored and refined intelligence. And then too, always easy, bland, and considerate; and though with luxuries and conveniences at his command, to participate in which, under any other circumstances, might have been embarrassing to his companions, with so much tact, that either by an allusion to early days, happy days when he owed so much to Gerard's father, or some other mode equally felicitous, he contrived completely to maintain among them the spirit of social equality. In the evening, Hatton generally looked in when Gerard was at home, and on Sundays they were always together. Their common faith was a bond of union which led them to the same altar, and on that day Hatton had obtained their promise always to dine with him. He was careful to ascertain each holy day at what chapel the music was most exquisite, that the most passionate taste of Sybil might be gratified. Indeed, during this residence in London, the opportunity it afforded of making her acquainted with some of the great masters of the human voice was perhaps to Sybil a source of pleasure not the least important. For though it was not deemed consistent with the future discipline which she contemplated to enter a theatre, there were yet occasions which permitted her, under every advantage, to listen to the performance of the master-pieces of sacred melody. Alone, with Hatton and her father, she often poured forth those tones of celestial sweetness and etherial power that had melted the soul of Egremont amid the ruins of Marney Abbey.

More intimately acquainted with Sybil Gerard, Hatton had shrunk from the project that he had at first so crudely formed. There was something about her that awed, while it fascinated him. He did not relinquish his purpose, for it was a rule of his life never to do that; but he postponed the plans of its fulfilment. Hatton was not, what is commonly understood by the phrase, in love with Sybil: certainly not passionately in love with her. With all his daring and talents and fine taste, there was in Hatton such a vein of thorough good sense, that it was impossible for him to act or even to think anything that was ridiculous. He wished still to marry Sybil for the great object that we have stated; he had a mind quite equal to appreciate her admirable qualities, but sense enough to wish that she were a less dazzling creature, because then he would have a better chance of accomplishing his end. He perceived when he had had a due opportunity to study her character, that the cloister was the natural catastrophe impending over a woman who, with an exalted mind, great abilities, a fine and profound education and almost supernatural charms, found herself born and rooted in the ranks of a degraded population. All this Hatton understood; it was a conclusion he had gradually arrived at by a gradual process of induction and by a vigilant observation that in its study of character had rarely been deceived; and when one evening with an art that could not be suspected, he sounded Gerard on the future of his daughter, he found that the clear intellect and straight-forward sagacity of the father had arrived at the same result. "She wishes," said Gerard, "to take the veil, and I only oppose it for a time, that she may have some knowledge of life and a clear conception of what she is about to do. I wish not that she should hereafter reproach her father. But, to my mind, Sybil is right. She cannot look to marriage: no man that she could marry would be worthy of her."

During these two months, and especially during the last, Morley was rarely in London, though ever much with Gerard, and often with his daughter during his visits. The necessary impulse had been given to the affairs of the Convention, the delegates had visited the members, the preparations for the presentation of the National Petition had been completed; the overthrow of the whig government, the abortive effort of Sir Robert Peel, the return of the whig administration, and the consequent measures, had occasioned a delay of two months in the presentation of the great document: it was well for Gerard to remain, who was a leader in debate, and whose absence for a week would have endangered his position as the head of a party, but these considerations did not influence Morley, who had already found great inconvenience in managing his journal at a distance; so, about the middle of May, he had returned to Mowbray, coming up occasionally by the train if anything important were stirring, or his vote could be of service to his friend and colleague. The affair of Birmingham however had alarmed Morley and he had written up to Gerard that he should instantly repair to town. Indeed he was expected the very morning that Sybil, her father having gone to the Convention where there were at this very moment very fiery debates, went forth to take the morning air of summer in the gardens of St James' Park.

It was a real summer day; large, round, glossy, fleecy clouds, as white and shining as glaciers, studded with their immense and immoveable forms the deep blue sky. There was not even a summer breeze, though the air was mellow, balmy, and exhilarating. There was a bloom upon the trees, the waters glittered, the prismatic wild-fowl dived, breathed again, and again disappeared. Beautiful children, fresh and sweet as the new-born rose, glanced about with the gestures and sometimes the voices of Paradise. And in the distance rose the sacred towers of the great Western Minster.

How fair is a garden amid the toils and passions of existence! A curse upon those who vulgarize and desecrate these holy haunts; breaking the hearts of nursery maids, and smoking tobacco in the palace of the rose!

The mental clouds dispelled as Sybil felt the freshness and fragrance of nature. The colour came to her cheek; the deep brightness returned to her eye; her step that at first had been languid and if not melancholy, at least contemplative, became active and animated. She forgot the cares of life and was touched by all the sense of its enjoyment. To move, to breathe, to feel the sunbeam, were sensible and surpassing pleasures. Cheerful by nature, notwithstanding her stately thoughts and solemn life, a brilliant smile played on her seraphic face, as she marked the wild passage of the daring birds, or watched the thoughtless grace of infancy.

She rested herself on a bench beneath a branching elm, and her eye, that for some time had followed the various objects that had attracted it, was now fixed in abstraction on the sunny waters. The visions of past life rose before her. It was one of those reveries when the incidents of our existence are mapped before us, when each is considered with relation to the rest, and assumes in our knowledge its distinct and absolute position; when, as it were, we take stock of our experience, and ascertain how rich sorrow and pleasure, feeling and thought, intercourse with our fellow creatures and the fortuitous mysteries of life,—have made us in wisdom.

The quick intelligence and the ardent imagination of Sybil had made her comprehend with fervor the two ideas that had been impressed on her young mind; the oppression of her church and the degradation of her people. Educated in solitude and exchanging thoughts only with individuals of the same sympathies, these impression had resolved themselves into one profound and gloomy conviction, that the world was divided only between the oppressors and the oppressed. With her, to be one of the people, was to be miserable and innocent; one of the privileged, a luxurious tyrant. In the cloister, in her garden, amid the scenes of suffering which she often visited and always solaced, she had raised up two phantoms which with her represented human nature.

But the experience of the last few months had operated a great change in these impressions. She had seen enough to suspect that the world was a more complicated system than she had preconceived. There was not that strong and rude simplicity in its organization she had supposed. The characters were more various, the motives more mixed, the classes more blended, the elements of each more subtle and diversified, than she had imagined. The People she found was not that pure embodiment of unity of feeling, of interest, and of purpose, which she had pictured in her abstractions. The people had enemies among the people: their own passions; which made them often sympathize, often combine, with the privileged. Her father, with all his virtues, all his abilities, singleness of purpose and simplicity of aim, encountered rivals in their own Convention, and was beset by open or, still worse, secret foes.

Sybil, whose mind had been nurtured with great thoughts, and with whom success or failure alike partook of the heroic, who had hoped for triumph, but who was prepared for sacrifice, found to her surprise that great thoughts have very little to do with the business of the world; that human affairs, even in an age of revolution, are the subject of compromise; and that the essence of compromise is littleness. She thought that the People, calm and collected, conscious at last of their strength and confident in their holy cause, had but to express their pure and noble convictions by the delegates of their choice, and that an antique and decrepid authority must bow before the irresistible influence of their moral power. These delegates of their choice turned out to be a plebeian senate of wild ambitions and sinister and selfish ends, while the decrepid authority that she had been taught existed only by the sufferance of the millions was compact and organized, with every element of physical power at its command, and supported by the interests, the sympathies, the honest convictions, and the strong prejudices of classes influential not merely from their wealth but even by their numbers.

Nor could she resist the belief that the feeling of the rich towards the poor was not that sentiment of unmingled hate and scorn which she associated with Norman conquerors and feudal laws. She would ascribe rather the want of sympathy that unquestionably exists between Wealth and Work in England, to mutual ignorance between the classes which possess these two great elements of national prosperity; and though the source of that ignorance was to be sought in antecedent circumstances of violence and oppression, the consequences perhaps had outlived the causes, as customs survive opinions.

Sybil looked towards Westminster, to those proud and passionate halls where assembles the Parliament of England; that rapacious, violent, and haughty body, that had brought kings and prelates to the block; spoiled churches and then seized the sacred manors for their personal prey; invested their own possessions with infinite privileges, and then mortgaged for their state and empire the labour of countless generations. Could the voice of solace sound from such a quarter?

Sybil unfolded a journal which she had brought; not now to be read for the first time; but now for the first time to be read alone, undisturbed, in a scene of softness and serenity. It contained a report of the debate in the House of Commons on the presentation of the National Petition; that important document which had been the means of drawing forth Sybil from her solitude, and of teaching her something of that world of which she had often pondered, and yet which she had so inaccurately preconceived.

Yes! there was one voice that had sounded in that proud Parliament, that free from the slang of faction, had dared to express immortal truths: the voice of a noble, who without being a demagogue, had upheld the popular cause; had pronounced his conviction that the rights of labour were as sacred as those of property; that if a difference were to be established, the interests of the living wealth ought to be preferred; who had declared that the social happiness of the millions should be the first object of a statesman, and that if that were not achieved, thrones and dominions, the pomp and power of courts and empires, were alike worthless.

With a heart not without emotion; with a kindling cheek, and eyes suffused with tears, Sybil read the speech of Egremont. She ceased; still holding the paper with one hand, she laid on it the other with tenderness, and looked up to breathe as it were for relief. Before her stood the orator himself.

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