Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 6

Urged by Sybil's entreaties the cab-driver hurried on. With all the skilled experience of a thorough cockney charioteer he tried to conquer time and space by his rare knowledge of short cuts and fine acquaintance with unknown thoroughfares. He seemed to avoid every street which was the customary passage of mankind. The houses, the population, the costume, the manners, the language through which they whirled their way, were of a different state and nation to those with which the dwellers in the dainty quarters of this city are acquainted. Now dark streets of frippery and old stores, new market-places of entrails and carrion with gutters running gore, sometimes the way was enveloped in the yeasty fumes of a colossal brewery, and sometimes they plunged into a labyrinth of lanes teeming with life, and where the dog-stealer and the pick-pocket, the burglar and the assassin, found a sympathetic multitude of all ages; comrades for every enterprise; and a market for every booty.

The long summer twilight was just expiring, the pale shadows of the moon were just stealing on; the gas was beginning to glare in the shops of tripe and bacon, and the paper lanthorns to adorn the stall and the stand. They crossed a broad street which seemed the metropolis of the district; it flamed with gin-palaces; a multitude were sauntering in the mild though tainted air; bargaining, blaspheming, drinking, wrangling: and varying their business and their potations, their fierce strife and their impious irreverence, with flashes of rich humour, gleams of native wit, and racy phrases of idiomatic slang.

Absorbed in her great mission Sybil was almost insensible to the scenes through which she passed, and her innocence was thus spared many a sight and sound that might have startled her vision or alarmed her ear. They could not now he very distant from the spot; they were crossing this broad way, and then were about to enter another series of small obscure dingy streets, when the cab-driver giving a flank to his steed to stimulate it to a last effort, the horse sprang forward, and the wheel of the cab came off.

Sybil extricated herself from the vehicle unhurt; a group immediately formed round the cab, a knot of young thieves, almost young enough for infant schools, a dustman, a woman nearly naked and very drunk, and two unshorn ruffians with brutality stamped on every feature, with pipes in their mouths, and their hands in their pockets.

"I can take you no further," said the cabman: "my fare is three shillings."

"What am I to do?" said Sybil, taking out her purse.

"The best thing the young lady can do," said the dustman, in a hoarse voice, "is to stand something to us all."

"That's your time o'day," squeaked a young thief.

"I'll drink your health with very great pleasure my dear," hiccupped the woman.

"How much have you got there?" said the young thief making a dash at the purse, but he was not quite tall enough, and failed.

"No wiolence," said one of the ruffians taking his pipe out of his mouth and sending a volume of smoke into Sybil's face, "we'll take the young lady to Mother Poppy's, and then we'll make a night of it."

But at this moment appeared a policeman, one of the permanent garrison of the quarter, who seeing one of her Majesty's carriages in trouble thought he must interfere. "Hilloa," he said, "what's all this?" And the cabman, who was a good fellow though in too much trouble to aid Sybil, explained in the terse and picturesque language of Cockaigne, doing full justice to his late fare, the whole circumstances.

"Oh! that's it," said the policeman, "the lady's respectable is she? Then I'd advise you and Hell Fire Dick to stir your chalks, Splinter-legs. Keep moving's the time of day, Madam; you get on. Come;" and taking the woman by her shoulder he gave her a spin that sent her many a good yard. "And what do you want?" he asked gruffly of the lads.

"We wants a ticket for the Mendicity Society," said the captain of the infant hand putting his thumb to his nose and running away, followed by his troop.

"And so you want to go to Silver Street?" said her official preserver to Sybil, for she had not thought it wise to confess her ultimate purpose, and indicate under the apprehended circumstances the place of rendezvous to a member of the police.

"Well; that's not very difficult now. Go a-head; take the second turning to your right, and the third to your left, and you're landed."

Aided by these instructions, Sybil hastened on, avoiding notice as much as was in her power, and assisted in some degree by the advancing gloom of night. She had reached Silver Street; a long, narrow, hilly Street; and now she was at fault. There were not many persons about, and there were few shops here; yet one was at last at hand, and she entered to enquire her way. The person at the counter was engaged, and many customers awaited him: time was very precious: Sybil had made the enquiry and received only a supercilious stare from the shopman, who was weighing with precision some article that he was serving. A young man, shabby, but of a very superior appearance to the people of this quarter, good-looking, though with a dissolute air, and who seemed waiting for a customer in attendance, addressed Sybil. "I am going to Hunt Street," he said, "shall I show you the way?"

She accepted this offer most thankfully. "It is close at hand, I believe?"

"Here it is," he said; and he turned down a street. "What is your house?"

"No. 22: a printing-office." said Sybil; for the street she had entered was so dark she despaired of finding her way, and ventured to trust so far a guide who was not a policeman.

"The very house I am going to," said the stranger: "I am a printer." And they walked on some way, until they at length stopped before a glass and illumined door, covered with a red curtain. Before it was a group of several men and women brawling, but who did not notice Sybil and her companion.

"Here we are," said the man; and he pushed the door open, inviting Sybil to enter. She hesitated; it did not agree with the description that had been given her by the coffee-house keeper, but she had seen so much since, and felt so much, and gone through so much, that she had not at the moment that clear command of her memory for which she was otherwise remarkable; but while she faltered, an inner door was violently thrown open, and Sybil moving aside, two girls, still beautiful in spite of gin and paint, stepped into the Street.

"This cannot be the house," exclaimed Sybil starting back, overwhelmed with shame and terror. "O! holy Virgin aid me!"

"And that's a blessed word to hear in this heathen land," exclaimed an Irishman, who was one of the group on the outside.

"If you be of our holy church," said Sybil appealing to the man who had thus spoken and whom she gently drew aside, "I beseech you, by everything we hold sacred, to aid me."

"And will I not?" said the man; "and I should like to see the arm that would hurt you;" and he looked round, but the young man had disappeared. "You are not a countrywoman I am thinking," he added.

"No, but a sister in Christ," said Sybil; "listen to me, good friend. I hasten to my father,—he is in great danger,—in Hunt Street,—I know not my way,—every moment is precious,—guide me, I beseech you,—honestly and truly guide me!"

"Will I not? Don't you be afraid my dear. And her poor father is ill! I wish I had such a daughter! We have not far to go. You should have taken the next turning. We must walk up this again for 'tis a small street with no thoroughfare. Come on without fear."

Nor did Sybil fear; for the description of the street which the honest man had incidentally given, tallied with her instructions. Encouraging her with many kind words, and full of rough courtesies, the good Irishman led her to the spot she had so long sought. There was the court she was told to enter. It was well lit, and descending the steps she stopped at the first door on her left, and knocked.

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