Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 5

Agitated and overcome by these unexpected and passionate appeals, and these outrageous ebullitions acting on her at a time when she herself was labouring under no ordinary excitement, and was distracted with disturbing thoughts, the mind of Sybil seemed for a moment to desert her; neither by sound nor gesture did she signify her sense of Morley's last words and departure; and it was not until the loud closing of the street door echoing through the long passage recalled her to herself, that she was aware how much was at stake in that incident. She darted out of the room to recall him; to make one more effort for her father; but in vain. By the side of their house was an intricate passage leading into a labyrinth of small streets. Through this Morley had disappeared; and his name, more than once sounded in a voice of anguish in that silent and most obsolete Smith's Square, received no echo.

Darkness and terror came over the spirit of Sybil; a sense of confounding and confusing woe, with which it was in vain to cope. The conviction of her helplessness prostrated her. She sate her down upon the steps before the door of that dreary house, within the railings of that gloomy court, and buried her face in her hands: a wild vision of the past and the future, without thought or feeling, coherence or consequence: sunset gleams of vanished bliss, and stormy gusts of impending doom.

The clock of St John's struck seven.

It was the only thing that spoke in that still and dreary square; it was the only voice that there seemed ever to sound; but it was a voice from heaven; it was the voice of St John.

Sybil looked up: she looked up at the holy building. Sybil listened: she listened to the holy sounds. St John told her that the danger of her father was yet so much advanced. Oh! why are there saints in heaven if they cannot aid the saintly! The oath that Morley would have enforced came whispering in the ear of Sybil—"Swear by the holy Virgin and by all the saints."

And shall she not pray to the holy Virgin and all the saints? Sybil prayed: she prayed to the holy Virgin and all the saints; and especially to the beloved St John: most favoured among Hebrew men, on whose breast reposed the divine Friend.

Brightness and courage returned to the spirit of Sybil: a sense of animating and exalting faith that could move mountains, and combat without fear a thousand perils. The conviction of celestial aid inspired her. She rose from her sad resting-place and re-entered the house: only, however, to provide herself with her walking attire, and then alone and without a guide, the shades of evening already descending, this child of innocence and divine thoughts, born in a cottage and bred in a cloister, she went forth, on a great enterprise of duty and devotion, into the busiest and the wildest haunts of the greatest of modern cities.

Sybil knew well her way to Palace Yard. This point was soon reached: she desired the cabman to drive her to a Street in the Strand in which was a coffee-house, where during the last weeks of their stay in London the scanty remnants of the National Convention had held their sittings. It was by a mere accident that Sybil had learnt this circumstance, for when she had attended the meetings of the Convention in order to hear her father's speeches, it was in the prime of their gathering and when their numbers were great, and when they met in audacious rivalry opposite that St Stephen's which they wished to supersede. This accidental recollection however was her only clue in the urgent adventure on which she had embarked.

She cast an anxious glance at the clock of St Martin's as she passed that church: the hand was approaching the half hour of seven. She urged on the driver; they were in the Strand; there was an agitating stoppage; she was about to descend when the obstacle was removed; and in a few minutes they turned down the street which she sought.

"What number. Ma'am?" asked the cabman.

"'Tis a coffee-house; I know not the number nor the name of him who keeps it. 'Tis a coffee-house. Can you see one? Look, look, I pray you! I am much pressed."

"Here's a coffee-house, Ma'am," said the man in a hoarse voice.

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"How good you are! Yes; I will get out. You will wait for me, I am sure?"

"All right," said the cabman, as Sybil entered the illumined door. "Poor young thing! she's wery anxious about summut."

Sybil at once stepped into a rather capacious room, fitted up in the old-fashioned style of coffee-rooms, with mahogany boxes, in several of which were men drinking coffee and reading newspapers by a painful glare of gas. There was a waiter in the middle of the room who was throwing some fresh sand upon the floor, but who stared immensely when looking up he beheld Sybil.

"Now, Ma'am, if you please," said the waiter inquiringly.

"Is Mr Gerard here?" said Sybil.

"No. Ma'am; Mr Gerard has not been here to-day, nor yesterday neither"—and he went on throwing the sand.

"I should like to see the master of the house," said Sybil very humbly.

"Should you, Ma'am?" said the waiter, but he gave no indication of assisting her in the fulfilment of her wish.

Sybil repeated that wish, and this time the waiter said nothing. This vulgar and insolent neglect to which she was so little accustomed depressed her spirit. She could have encountered tyranny and oppression, and she would have tried to struggle with them; but this insolence of the insignificant made her feel her insignificance; and the absorption all this time of the guests in their newspapers aggravated her nervous sense of her utter helplessness. All her feminine reserve and modesty came over her; alone in this room among men, she felt overpowered, and she was about to make a precipitate retreat when the clock of the coffee-room sounded the half hour. In a paroxysm of nervous excitement she exclaimed, "Is there not one among you who will assist me?"

All the newspaper readers put down their journals and stared.

"Hoity-toity," said the waiter, and he left off throwing the sand.

"Well, what's the matter now?" said one of the guests.

"I wish to see the master of the house on business of urgency," said Sybil, "to himself and to one of his friends, and his servant here will not even reply to my inquiries."

"I say, Saul, why don't you answer the young lady?" said another guest.

"So I did," said Saul. "Did you call for coffee, Ma'am?"

"Here's Mr Tanner, if you want him, my dear." said the first guest, as a lean black-looking individual, with grizzled hair and a red nose, entered the coffee-room from the interior. "Tanner, here's a lady wants you."

"And a very pretty girl too," whispered one to another.

"What's your pleasure?" said Mr Tanner abruptly.

"I wish to speak to you alone," said Sybil: and advancing towards him she said in a low voice, "'Tis about Walter Gerard I would speak to you."

"Well, you can step in here if you like," said Tanner very discourteously; "there's only my wife:" and he led the way to the inner room, a small close parlour adorned with portraits of Tom Paine, Cobbett, Thistlewood, and General Jackson; with a fire, though it was a hot July, and a very fat woman affording still more heat, and who was drinking shrub and water and reading the police reports. She stared rudely at Sybil as she entered following Tanner, who himself when the door was closed said, "Well, now what have you got to say?"

"I wish to see Walter Gerard."

"Do you indeed!"

"And," continued Sybil notwithstanding his sneering remark, "I come here that you may tell me where I may find him."

"I believe he lives somewhere in Westminster," said Tanner, "that's all I know about him; and if this be all you had to say it might have been said in the coffee-room."

"It is not all that I have to say," said Sybil; "and I beseech you, sir, listen to me. I know where Gerard lives: I am his daughter, and the same roof covers our heads. But I wish to know where they meet to-night—you understand me;" and she looked at his wife, who had resumed her police reports; "'tis urgent.

"I don't know nothing about Gerard," said Tanner, "except that he comes here and goes away again."

"The matter on which I would see him," said Sybil, "is as urgent as the imagination can conceive, and it concerns you as well as himself; but if you know not where I can find him"—and she moved as if about to retire—"'tis of no use."

"Stop." said Tanner, "you can tell it to me."

"Why so? You know not where he is; you cannot tell it to him."

"I don't know that," said Tanner. "Come, let's have it out; and if it will do him any good. I'll see if we can't manage to find him."

"I can impart my news to him and no one else," said Sybil. "I am solemnly bound."

"You can't have a better counseller than Tanner," urged his wife, getting curious; "you had better tell us."

"I want no counsel; I want that which you can give me if you choose—information. My father instructed me that if certain circumstances occurred it was a matter of the last urgency that I should see him this evening and before nine o'clock, I was to call here and obtain from you the direction where to find him; the direction," she added in a lowered tone, and looking Tanner full in the face, "where they hold their secret council to-night."

"Hem!" said Tanner: "I see you're on the free-list. And pray how am I to know you are Gerard's daughter?"

"You do not doubt I am his daughter!" said Sybil proudly.

"Hem!" said Tanner: "I do not know that I do very much," and he whispered to his wife. Sybil removed from them as far as she was able.

"And this news is very urgent," resumed Tanner; "and concerns me you say?"

"Concerns you all," said Sybil; "and every minute is of the last importance."

"I should like to have gone with you myself, and then there could have been no mistake," said Tanner; "but that can't be; we have a meeting here at half-past eight in our great room. I don't much like breaking rules, especially in such a business; and yet, concerning all of us, as you say, and so very urgent, I don't see how it could do harm; and I might—I wish I was quite sure you were the party.

"How can I satisfy you?" said Sybil, distressed.

"Perhaps the young person have got her mark on her linen," suggested the wife. "Have you got a handkerchief Ma'am?" and she took Sybil's handkerchief and looked at it, and examined it at every corner. It had no mark. And this unforeseen circumstance of great suspicion might have destroyed everything, had not the production of the handkerchief by Sybil also brought forth a letter addressed to her from Hatton.

"It seems to be the party," said the wife.

"Well," said Tanner, "you know St Martin's Lane I suppose? Well, you go up St Martin's Lane to a certain point, and then you will get into Seven Dials; and then you'll go on. However it is impossible to direct you; you must find your way. Hunt Street, going out of Silver Street, No. 22. 'Tis what you call a blind street, with no thoroughfare, and then you go down an alley. Can you recollect that?"

"Fear not."

"No. 22 Hunt Street, going out of Silver Street. Remember the alley. It's an ugly neighbourhood; but you go of your own accord."

"Yes, yes. Good night."

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