Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 8

Behind the printing office in the alley at the door of which we left Sybil, was a yard which led to some premises that had once been used as a work-shop, but were now generally unoccupied. In a rather spacious chamber over which was a loft, five men, one of whom was Gerard, were busily engaged. There was no furniture in the room except a few chairs and a deal table, on which was a solitary light and a variety of papers.

"Depend upon it," said Gerard, "we must stick to the National Holiday: we can do nothing effectively, unless the movement is simultaneous. They have not troops to cope with a simultaneous movement, and the Holiday is the only machinery to secure unity of action. No work for six weeks, and the rights of Labour will be acknowledged!"

"We shall never be able to make the people unanimous in a cessation of labour," said a pale young man, very thin but with a countenance of remarkable energy. "The selfish instincts will come into play and will baulk our political object, while a great increase of physical suffering must be inevitable."

"It might be done," said a middle-aged, thickset man, in a thoughtful tone. "If the Unions were really to put their shoulder to the wheel, it might be done."

"And if it is not done," said Gerard, "what do you propose? The people ask you to guide them. Shrink at such a conjuncture, and our influence over them is forfeited and justly forfeited."

"I am for partial but extensive insurrections," said the young man. "Sufficient in extent and number to demand all the troops and yet to distract the military movements. We can count on Birmingham again, if we act at once before their new Police Act is in force; Manchester is ripe; and several of the cotton towns; but above all I have letters that assure me that at this moment we can do anything in Wales."

"Glamorganshire is right to a man," said Wilkins a Baptist teacher. "And trade is so bad that the Holiday at all events must take place there, for the masters themselves are extinguishing their furnaces.

"All the north is seething," said Gerard.

"We must contrive to agitate the metropolis," said Maclast, a shrewd carroty-haired paper-stainer. "We must have weekly meetings at Kennington and demonstrations at White Conduit House: we cannot do more here I fear than talk, but a few thousand men on Kennington Common every Saturday and some spicy resolutions will keep the Guards in London."

"Ay, ay," said Gerard; "I wish the woollen and cotton trades were as bad to do as the iron, and we should need no holiday as you say, Wilkins. However it will come. In the meantime the Poor-law pinches and terrifies, and will make even the most spiritless turn."

"The accounts to-day from the north are very encouraging though," said the young man. "Stevens is producing a great effect, and this plan of our people going in procession and taking possession of the churches very much affects the imagination of the multitude."

"Ah!" said Gerard, "if we could only have the Church on our side, as in the good old days, we would soon put an end to the demon tyranny of Capital."

"And now," said the pale young man, taking up a manuscript paper, "to our immediate business. Here is the draft of the projected proclamation of the Convention on the Birmingham outbreak. It enjoins peace and order, and counsels the people to arm themselves in order to secure both. You understand: that they may resist if the troops and the police endeavour to produce disturbance."

"Ay, ay," said Gerard. "Let it be stout. We will settle this at once, and so get it out to-morrow. Then for action."

"But we must circulate this pamphlet of the Polish Count on the manner of encountering cavalry with pikes," said Maclast.

"'Tis printed," said the stout thickset man; "we have set it up on a broadside. We have sent ten thousand to the north and five thousand to John Frost. We shall have another delivery tomorrow. It takes very generally."

The pale young man read the draft of the proclamation; it was canvassed and criticised sentence by sentence; altered, approved: finally put to the vote, and unanimously carried. On the morrow it was to be posted in every thoroughfare of the metropolis, and circulated in every great city of the provinces and populous district of labour.

"And now," said Gerard, "I shall to-morrow to the north, where I am wanted. But before I go I propose, as suggested yesterday, that we five together with Langley, whom I counted on seeing here to-night, now form ourselves into a committee for arming the people. Three of us are permanent in London; Wilkins and myself will aid you in the provinces. Nothing can be decided on this head till we see Langley, who will make a communication from Birmingham that cannot be trusted to writing. The seven o'clock train must have long since arrived. He is now a good hour behind his time."

"I hear foot-steps," said Maclast.

"He comes," said Gerard.

The door of the chamber opened and a woman entered. Pale, agitated, exhausted, she advanced to them in the glimmering light.

"What is this?" said several of the council.

"Sybil!" exclaimed the astonished Gerard, and he rose from his seat.

She caught the arm of her father, and leant on him for a moment in silence. Then looking up with an expression that seemed to indicate she was rallying her last energies, she said, in a voice low yet so distinct that it reached the ear of all present, "There is not an instant to lose: fly!"

The men rose hastily from their seats; they approached the messenger of danger; Gerard waved them off, for he perceived his daughter was sinking. Gently he placed her in his chair; she was sensible, for she grasped his arm, and she murmured—still she murmured—"fly!"

"'Tis very strange," said Maclast.

"I feel queer!" said the thickset man.

"Methinks she looks like a heavenly messenger," said Wilkins. "I had no idea that earth had anything so fair," said the youthful scribe of proclamations.

"Hush friends!" said Gerard: and then he bent over Sybil and said in a low soothing voice, "Tell me, my child, what is it?"

She looked up to her father; a glance as it were of devotion and despair: her lips moved, but they refused their office and expressed no words. There was a deep silence in the room.

"She is gone," said her father.

"Water," said the young man, and he hurried away to obtain some.

"I feel queer," said his thickset colleague to Maclast.

"I will answer for Langley as for myself." said Maclast; "and there is not another human being aware of our purpose."

"Except Morley."

"Yes: except Morley. But I should as soon doubt Gerard as Stephen Morley."

"Certainly."

"I cannot conceive how she traced me," said Gerard. "I have never even breathed to her of our meeting. Would we had some water! Ah! here it comes.

"I arrest you in the Queen's name," said a serjeant of police. "Resistance is vain." Maclast blew out the light, and then ran up into the loft, followed by the thickset man, who fell down the stairs: Wilkins got up the chimney. The sergeant took a lanthorn from his pocket, and threw a powerful light on the chamber, while his followers entered, seized and secured all the papers, and commenced their search.

The light fell upon a group that did not move: the father holding the hand of his insensible child, while he extended his other arm as if to preserve her from the profanation of the touch of the invaders.

"You are Walter Gerard, I presume," said the serjeant, "six foot two without shoes."

"Whoever I may he," he replied, "I presume you will produce your warrant, friend, before you touch me."

"'Tis here. We want five of you, named herein, and all others that may happen to be found in your company."

"I shall obey the warrant," said Gerard after he had examined it; "but this maiden, my daughter, knows nothing of this meeting or its purpose. She has but just arrived, and how she traced me I know not. You will let me recover her, and then permit her to depart."

"Can't let no one out of my sight found in this room."

"But she is innocent, even if we were guilty; she could be nothing else but innocent, for she knows nothing of this meeting and its business, both of which I am prepared at the right time and place to vindicate. She entered this room a moment only before yourself, entered and swooned."

"Can't help that; must take her; she can tell the magistrate anything she likes, and he must decide."

"Why you are not afraid of a young girl?"

"I am afraid of nothing; but I must do my duty. Come we have no time for talk. I must take you both."

"By G—d you shall not take her;" and letting go her hand, Gerard advanced before her and assumed a position of defence. "You know, I find, my height: my strength does not shame my stature! Look to yourself. Advance and touch this maiden, and I will fell you and your minions like oxen at their pasture."

The inspector took a pistol from his pocket and pointed it at Gerard. "You see," he said, "resistance is quite vain."

"For slaves and cravens, but not for us. I say you shall not touch her till I am dead at her feet. Now, do your worst."

At this moment two policemen who had been searching the loft descended with Maclast who had vainly attempted to effect his escape over a neighbouring roof; the thickset man was already secured; and Wilkins had been pulled down the chimney and made his appearance in as grimy a state as such a shelter would naturally have occasioned. The young man too, their first prisoner who had been captured before they had entered the room, was also brought in; there was now abundance of light; the four prisoners were ranged and well guarded at the end of the apartment; Gerard standing before Sybil still maintained his position of defence, and the serjeant was, a few yards away, in his front with his pistol in his hand.

"Well you are a queer chap," said the serjeant; "but I must do my duty. I shall give orders to my men to seize you, and if you resist them, I shall shoot you through the head."

"Stop!" called out one of the prisoners, the young man who drew proclamations, "she moves. Do with us as you think fit, but you cannot be so harsh as to seize one that is senseless, and a woman!"

"I must do my duty," said the serjeant rather perplexed at the situation. "Well, if you like, take steps to restore her, and when she has come to herself, she shall be moved in a hackney coach alone with her father."

The means at hand to recover Sybil were rude, but they assisted a reviving nature. She breathed, she sighed, slowly opened her beautiful dark eyes, and looked around. Her father held her death-cold hand; she returned his pressure: her lips moved, and still she murmured "fly!"

Gerard looked at the serjeant. "I am ready," he said, "and I will carry her." The officer nodded assent. Guarded by two policemen the tall delegate of Mowbray bore his precious burthen out of the chamber through the yard, the printing-offices, up the alley, till a hackney coach received them in Hunt Street, round which a mob had already collected, though kept at a discreet distance by the police. One officer entered the coach with them: another mounted the box. Two other coaches carried the rest of the prisoners and their guards, and within halt an hour from the arrival of Sybil at the scene of the secret meeting, she was on her way to Bow Street to be examined as a prisoner of state.

Sybil rallied quickly during their progress to the police office. Satisfied to find herself with her father she would have enquired as to all that had happened, but Gerard at first discouraged her; at length he thought it wisest gradually to convey to her that they were prisoners, but he treated the matter lightly, did not doubt that she would immediately be discharged, and added that though he might be detained for a day or so, his offence was at all events bailable and he had friends on whom he could rely. When Sybil clearly comprehended that she was a prisoner, and that her public examination was impending, she became silent, and leaning back in the coach, covered her face with her hands.

The prisoners arrived at Bow Street; they were hurried into a back office, where they remained some time unnoticed, several police-men remaining in the room. At length about twenty minutes having elapsed, a man dressed in black and of a severe aspect entered the room accompanied by an inspector of police. He first enquired whether these were the prisoners, what were their names and descriptions, which each had to give and which were written down, where they were arrested, why they were arrested: then scrutinising them sharply he said the magistrate was at the Home Office, and he doubted whether they could be examined until the morrow. Upon this Gerard commenced stating the circumstances under which Sybil had unfortunately been arrested, but the gentleman in black with a severe aspect, immediately told him to hold his tongue, and when Gerard persisted, declared that if Gerard did not immediately cease he should be separated from the other prisoners and be ordered into solitary confinement.

Another half hour of painful suspense. The prisoners were not permitted to hold any conversation; Sybil sat half reclining on a form with her back against the wall, and her face covered, silent and motionless. At the end of half an hour the inspector of police who had visited them with the gentleman in black entered and announced that the prisoners could not be brought up for examination that evening, and they must make themselves as comfortable as they could for the night. Gerard made a last appeal to the inspector that Sybil might be allowed a separate chamber and in this he was unexpectedly successful.

The inspector was a kind-hearted man: he lived at the office and his wife was the housekeeper. He had already given her an account, an interesting account, of his female prisoner. The good woman's imagination was touched as well as her heart; she had herself suggested that they ought to soften the rigour of the fair prisoner's lot; and the inspector therefore almost anticipated the request of Gerard. He begged Sybil to accompany him to his better half, and at once promised all the comforts and convenience which they could command. As, attended by the inspector, she took her way to the apartments of his family, they passed through a room in which there were writing materials, and Sybil speaking for the first time and in a faint voice enquired of the inspector whether it were permitted to apprise a friend of her situation. She was answered in the affirmative, on condition that the note was previously perused by him.

"I will write it at once," she said, and taking up a pen she inscribed these words,

"I followed your counsel; I entreated him to quit London this night. He pledged himself to do so on the morrow.

"I learnt he was attending a secret meeting; that there was urgent peril. I tracked him through scenes of terror. Alas! I arrived only in time to be myself seized as a conspirator, and I have been arrested and carried a prisoner to Bow Street, where I write this.

"I ask you not to interfere for him: that would be vain; but if I were free, I might at least secure him justice. But I am not free: I am to be brought up for public examination to-morrow, if I survive this night.

"You are powerful; you know all; you know what I say is truth. None else will credit it. Save me!"

"And now," said Sybil to the inspector in a tone of mournful desolation and of mild sweetness, "all depends on your faith to me," and she extended him the letter, which he read.

"Whoever he may be and wherever he may be," said the inspector with emotion, for the spirit of Sybil had already controlled his nature, "provided the person to whom this letter is addressed is within possible distance, fear not it shall reach him."

"I will seal and address it then," said Sybil, and she addressed the letter to

"THE HON. CHARLES EGREMONT M.P."

adding that superscription the sight of which had so agitated Egremont at Deloraine House.

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