Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 1

The building which was still called MARNEY ABBEY, though remote from the site of the ancient monastery, was an extensive structure raised at the latter end of the reign of James the First, and in the stately and picturesque style of that age. Placed on a noble elevation in the centre of an extensive and well wooded park, it presented a front with two projecting wings of equal dimensions with the centre, so that the form of the building was that of a quadrangle, less one of its sides. Its ancient lattices had been removed, and the present windows though convenient accorded little with the structure; the old entrance door in the centre of the building however still remained, a wondrous specimen of fantastic carving: Ionic columns of black oak, with a profusion of fruits and flowers, and heads of stags and sylvans. The whole of the building was crowned with a considerable pediment of what seemed at the first glance fanciful open work, but which examined more nearly offered in gigantic letters the motto of the house of Marney. The portal opened to a hall, such as is now rarely found; with the dais, the screen, the gallery, and the buttery-hatch all perfect, and all of carved black oak. Modern luxury, and the refined taste of the lady of the late lord, had made Marney Abbey as remarkable for its comfort and pleasantness of accommodation as for its ancient state and splendour. The apartments were in general furnished with all the cheerful ease and brilliancy of the modern mansion of a noble, but the grand gallery of the seventeenth century was still preserved, and was used on great occasions as the chief reception-room. You ascended the principal staircase to reach it through a long corridor. It occupied the whole length of one of the wings; was one hundred feet long, and forty-five feet broad, its walls hung with a collection of choice pictures rich in history; while the Axminster carpets, the cabinets, carved tables, and variety of easy chairs, ingeniously grouped, imparted even to this palatian chamber a lively and habitable air.

Lord Marney was several years the senior of Charles Egremont, yet still a young man. He was handsome; there was indeed a general resemblance between the brothers, though the expression of their countenances was entirely different; of the same height and air, and throughout the features a certain family cast; but here the likeness ceased. The countenance of Lord Marney bespoke the character of his mind; cynical, devoid of sentiment, arrogant, literal, hard. He had no imagination, had exhausted his slight native feeling, but he was acute, disputatious, and firm even to obstinacy. Though his early education had been very imperfect, he had subsequently read a good deal, especially in French literature. He had formed his mind by Helvetius, whose system he deemed irrefutable, and in whom alone he had faith. Armed with the principles of his great master, he believed he could pass through existence in adamantine armour, and always gave you in the business of life the idea of a man who was conscious you were trying to take him in, and rather respected you for it, but the working of whose cold, unkind, eye defied you.

There never had been excessive cordiality between the brothers even in their boyish days, and shortly after Egremont's entrance into life, they had become estranged. They were to meet now for the first time since Egremont's return from the continent. Their mother had arranged their reconciliation. They were to meet as if no misunderstanding had ever existed between them; it was specially stipulated by Lord Marney, that there was to be no "scene." Apprised of Egremont's impending arrival, Lord Marney was careful to be detained late that day at petty sessions, and entered the room only a few minutes before dinner was announced, where he found Egremont not only with the countess and a young lady who was staying with her, but with additional bail against any ebullition of sentiment in the shape of the Vicar of Marney, and a certain Captain Grouse, who was a kind of aide-de-camp of the earl; killed birds and carved them; played billiards with him, and lost; had indeed every accomplishment that could please woman or ease man; could sing, dance, draw, make artificial flies, break horses, exercise a supervision over stewards and bailiffs, and make every body comfortable by taking everything on his own shoulders.

Lady Marney had received Egremont in a manner which expressed the extreme satisfaction she experienced at finding him once more beneath his brother's roof. When he arrived indeed, he would have preferred to have been shown at once to his rooms, but a message immediately delivered expressed the wish of his sister-in-law at once to see him. She received him alone and with great warmth. She was beautiful, and soft as May; a glowing yet delicate face; rich brown hair, and large blue eyes; not yet a mother, but with something of the dignity of the matron blending with the lingering timidity of the girl.

Egremont was glad to join his sister-in-law again in the drawing-room before dinner. He seated himself by her side; and in answer to her enquiries was giving her some narrative of his travels; the Vicar who was very low church, was shaking his head at Lady Marney's young friend, who was enlarging on the excellence of Mr Paget's tales; while Captain Grouse, in a very stiff white neck-cloth, very tight pantaloons, to show his very celebrated legs, transparent stockings and polished shoes, was throwing himself into attitudes in the back ground, and with a zeal amounting almost to enthusiasm, teaching Lady Marney's spaniel to beg; when the door opened, and Lord Marney entered, but as if to make security doubly sure, not alone. He was accompanied by a neighbour and brother magistrate, Sir Vavasour Firebrace, a baronet of the earliest batch, and a gentleman of great family and great estate.

"Well Charles!"

"How are you George?"

And the brothers shook hands.

'Tis the English way; and if they had been inclined to fall into each other's arms, they would not probably have done more.

In a few minutes it was announced that dinner was served, and so, secured from a scene, having a fair appetite, and surrounded by dishes that could agreeably satisfy it, a kind of vague fraternal sentiment began to stir the breast of Lord Marney: he really was glad to see his brother again; remembered the days when they rode their poneys and played cricket; his voice softened, his eyes sparkled, and he at length exclaimed, "Do you know, old fellow, it makes me quite happy to see you here again. Suppose we take a glass of wine."

The softer heart and more susceptible spirit of Egremont were well calculated to respond to this ebullition of feeling, however slight; and truly it was for many reasons not without considerable emotion, that he found himself once more at Marney. He sate by the side of his gentle sister-in-law, who seemed pleased by the unwonted cordiality of her husband, and anxious by many kind offices to second every indication of good feeling on his part. Captain Grouse was extremely assiduous: the vicar was of the deferential breed, agreed with Lady Marney on the importance of infant schools, but recalled his opinion when Lord Marney expressed his imperious hope that no infant schools would ever be found in his neighbourhood. Sir Vavasour was more than middle aged, comely, very gentlemanlike, but with an air occasionally of absence which hardly agreed with his frank and somewhat hearty idiosyncracy; his clear brow, florid complexion, and blue eye. But Lord Marney talked a good deal, though chiefly dogmatical or argumentative. It was rather difficult for him to find a sufficient stock of opposition, but he laid in wait and seized every opening with wonderful alacrity. Even Captain Grouse could not escape him; if driven to extremity Lord Marney would even question his principles on fly-making. Captain Grouse gave up, but not too soon; he was well aware that his noble friend's passion for controversy was equal to his love of conquest. As for Lady Marney, it was evident that with no inconsiderable talents, and with an intelligence richly cultivated, the controversial genius of her husband had completely cowed her conversational charms. She never advanced a proposition that he did not immediately bristle up, and she could only evade the encounter by a graceful submission. As for the vicar, a frequent guest, he would fain have taken refuge in silence, but the earl, especially when alone, would what he called "draw him out," and the game once unearthed, with so skilled a pack there was but little fear of a bad run. When all were reduced to silence, Lord Marney relinquishing controversy, assumed the positive. He eulogized the new poor law, which he declared would be the salvation of the country, provided it was "carried out" in the spirit in which it was developed in the Marney Union; but then he would add that there was no district except their union in which it was properly observed. He was tremendously fierce against allotments and analysed the system with merciless sarcasm, Indeed he had no inconsiderable acquaintance with the doctrines of the economists, and was rather inclined to carry them into practice in every instance, except that of the landed proprietary, which he clearly proved "stood upon different grounds" to that of any other "interest." There was nothing he hated so much as a poacher, except a lease; though perhaps in the catalogue of his aversions, we ought to give the preference to his anti-ecclesiastical prejudice: this amounted even to acrimony. Though there was no man breathing who was possessed with such a strong repugnance to subscriptions of any kind, it delighted Lord Marney to see his name among the contributors to all sectarian institutions. The vicar of Marney, who had been presented by himself, was his model of a priest: he left every body alone. Under the influence of Lady Marney, the worthy vicar had once warmed up into some ebullition of very low church zeal; there was some talk of an evening lecture, the schools were to be remodelled, certain tracts were actually distributed. But Lord Marney soon stopped all this. "No priestcraft at Marney," said this gentle proprietor of abbey lands.

"I wanted very much to come and canvass for you," said Lady Marney to Egremont, "but George did not like it."

"The less the family interfered the better," said Lord Marney; "and for my part, I was very much alarmed when I heard my mother had gone down."

"Oh! my mother did wonders," said Egremont: "we should have been beat without her. Indeed, to tell the truth, I quite gave up the thing the moment they started their man. Before that we were on velvet; but the instant he appeared everything was changed, and I found some of my warmest supporters, members of his committee."

"You had a formidable opponent, Lord Marney told me," said Sir Vavasour. "Who was he?"

"Oh! a dreadful man! A Scotchman, richer than Croesus, one McDruggy, fresh from Canton, with a million of opium in each pocket, denouncing corruption, and bellowing free trade."

"But they do not care much for free trade in the old borough?" said Lord Marney.

"No, it was a mistake," said Egremont, "and the cry was changed the moment my opponent was on the ground. Then all the town was placarded with 'Vote for McDruggy and our young Queen,' as if he had coalesced with her Majesty."

"My mother must have been in despair," said Lord Marney.

"We issued our placard instantly of 'Vote for our young Queen and Egremont,' which was at least more modest, and turned out more popular."

"That I am sure was my mother," said Lord Marney.

"No," said Egremont; "it was the effusion of a far more experienced mind. My mother was in hourly communication with head quarters, and Mr Taper sent down the cry by express."

"Peel, in or out, will support the Poor Law," said Lord Marney, rather audaciously, as he reseated himself after the ladies had retired. "He must;" and he looked at his brother, whose return had in a great degree been secured by crying that Poor Law down.

"It is impossible," said Charles, fresh from the hustings, and speaking from the card of Taper, for the condition of the people was a subject of which he knew nothing.

"He will carry it out," said Lord Marney, "you'll see, or the land will not support him."

"I wish," said Sir Vavasour, "we could manage some modification about out-door relief."

"Modification!" said Lord Marney; "why there has been nothing but modification. What we want is stringency."

"The people will never bear it," said Egremont; "there must be some change."

"You cannot go back to the abuses of the old system," said Captain Grouse, making, as he thought, a safe observation.

"Better go back to the old system, than modify the new," said Lord Marney.

"I wish the people would take to it a little more," said Sir Vavasour; "they certainly do not like it in our parish."

"The people are very contented here, eh Slimsey?" said Lord Marney.

"Very," said the vicar.

Hereupon a conversation took place, principally sustained by the earl and the baronet, which developed all the resources of the great parochial mind. Dietaries, bastardy, gaol regulations, game laws, were amply discussed; and Lord Marney wound up with a declaration of the means by which the country might be saved, and which seemed principally to consist of high prices and low church.

"If the sovereign could only know her best friends," said Sir Vavasour, with a sigh.

Lord Marney seemed to get uneasy.

"And avoid the fatal mistakes of her predecessor," continued the baronet.

"Charles, another glass of claret," said the earl.

"She might yet rally round the throne a body of men"—

"Then we will go to the ladies," said the earl, abruptly disturbing his guest.

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