Sybil/Book 3/Chapter 2

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Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli
Book 3/Chapter 2


Two days after the visit of Egremont to the cottage of Walter Gerard, the visit of the Marney family to Mowbray terminated, and they returned to the Abbey.

There is something mournful in the breaking up of an agreeable party, and few are the roofs in which one has sojourned, which are quitted without some feeling of depression. The sudden cessation of all those sources of excitement which pervade a gay and well arranged mansion in the country, unstrings the nervous system. For a week or so, we have done nothing which was not agreeable, and heard nothing which was not pleasant. Our self-love has been respected; there has been a total cessation of petty cares; all the enjoyment of an establisnment without any of its solicitude. We have beheld civilization only in its favoured aspect, and tasted only the sunny side of the fruit. Sometimes there are associations with our visit of a still sweeter and softer character, but on these we need not dwell: glances that cannot be forgotten, and tones that linger in the ear; sentiment that subdues the soul, and flirtation that agitates the fancy. No matter, whatever may be the cause, one too often drives away from a country-house, rather hipped. The specific would be immediately to drive to another, and it is a favourite remedy. But sometimes it is not in our power; sometimes for instance we must return to our household gods in the shape of a nursery; and though this was not the form assumed by the penates of Lord Marney, his presence, the presence of an individual so important and so indefatigable, was still required. His Lordship had passed his time at Mowbray to his satisfaction. He had had his own way in everything. His selfishness had not received a single shock. He had lain down the law and it had not been questioned. He had dogmatised and impugned, and his assertions had passed current, and his doctrines been accepted as orthodox. Lord Mowbray suited him; he liked the consideration of so great a personage. Lord Marney also really liked pomp; a curious table and a luxurious life; but he liked them under any roof rather than his own. Not that he was what is commonly called a Screw; that is to say he was not a mere screw; but he was acute and malicious; saw everybody's worth and position at a glance; could not bear to expend his choice wines and costly viands on hangers-on and toad-eaters, though at the same time no man encouraged and required hangers-on and toad-eaters more. Lord Marney had all the petty social vices, and none of those petty social weaknesses which soften their harshness or their hideousness. To receive a prince of the blood or a great peer he would spare nothing. Had he to fulfil any of the public duties of his station, his performance would baffle criticism. But he enjoyed making the Vicar of Marney or Captain Grouse drink some claret that was on the wane, or praise a bottle of Burgundy that he knew was pricked.

Little things affect little minds. Lord Marney rose in no very good humour; he was kept at the station, which aggravated his spleen. During his journey on the railroad he spoke little, and though he more than once laboured to get up a controversy he was unable, for Lady Marney, who rather dreaded her dull home, and was not yet in a tone of mind that could hail the presence of the little Poinsett as full compensation for the brilliant circle of Mowbray, replied in amiable monosyllables, and Egremont himself in austere ones, for he was musing over Sybil Gerard and a thousand things as wild and sweet.

Everything went wrong this day. Even Captain Grouse was not at the Abbey to welcome them back. He was playing in a cricket match, Marney against Marham. Nothing else would have induced him to be absent. So it happened that the three fellow-travellers had to dine together, utterly weary of themselves and of each other. Captain Grouse was never more wanted; he would have amused Lord Marney, relieved his wife and brother, reported all that had been said and done in their neighbourhood during their absence, introduced a new tone, and effected a happy diversion. Leaving Mowbray, detained at the station, Grouse away, some disagreeable letters, or letters which an ill-humoured man chooses to esteem disagreeable, seemed to announce a climax. Lord Marney ordered the dinner to be served in the small dining-room, which was contiguous to a saloon in which Lady Marney, when they were alone, generally passed the evening.

The dinner was silent and sombre; happily it was also short. Lord Marney tasted several dishes, ate of none; found fault with his own claret, though the butler had given him a choice bottle; praised Lord Mowbray's, wondered where he got it, "all the wines at Mowbray were good;" then for the twentieth time wondered what could have induced Grouse to fix the cricket match the day he returned home, though he chose to forget that he had never communicated to Grouse even the probable day on which he might be expected.

As for Egremont it must be admitted that he was scarcely in a more contented mood than his brother, though he had not such insufficient cause for his dark humours. In quitting Mowbray, he had quitted something else than merely an agreeable circle: enough had happened in that visit to stir up the deep recesses of his heart, and to prompt him to investigate in an unusual spirit the cause and attributes of his position. He had found a letter on his return to the Abbey, not calculated to dispel these somewhat morbid feelings; a letter from his agent, urging the settlement of his election accounts, the primary cause of his visit to his brother.

Lady Marney left the dining-room; the brothers were alone. Lord Marney filled a bumper, which he drank off rapidly, pushed the bottle to his brother, and then said again, "What a cursed bore it is that Grouse is not here."

"Well, I cannot say, George, that I particularly miss the presence of Captain Grouse," said his brother.

Lord Marney looked at Egremont pugnaciously, and then observed, "Grouse is a capital fellow; one is never dull when Grouse is here."

"Well, for my part," said Egremont, "I do not much admire that amusement which is dependent on the efforts of hangers-on."

"Grouse is no more a hanger-on than any one else," said Lord Marney, rather fiercely.

"Perhaps not," said Egremont quietly; "I am no judge of such sort of people."

"I should like to know what you are a judge of; certainly not of making yourself agreeable to young ladies. Arabella cannot he particularly charmed with the result of your visit to Mowbray, as far as Lady Joan is concerned, Arabella's most intimate friend by the bye. If for no other reason, you ought to have paid her more attention."

"I cannot pay attention unless I am attracted," said Egremont; "I have not the ever-ready talent of your friend, Captain Grouse."

"I do not know what you mean by my friend Captain Grouse. Captain Grouse is no more my friend than your friend. One must have people about the house to do a thousand things which one cannot do oneself, and which one cannot trust to servants, and Grouse does all this capitally."

"Exactly; he is just what I said, a capital hanger-on if you like, but still a hanger-on."

"Well, and what then! Suppose he is a hanger-on; may I not have hangers-on as well as any other man?"

"Of course you may; but I am not bound to regret their absence."

"Who said you were? But I will regret their absence, if I choose. And I regret the absence of Grouse, regret it very much; and if he did happen to be inextricably engaged in this unfortunate match, I say, and you may contradict me if you please, that he ought to have taken care that Slimsey dined here, to tell me all that had happened."

"I am very glad he omitted to do so," said Egremont; "I prefer Grouse to Slimsey."

"I dare say you do," said Lord Marney, filling his glass and looking very black; "you would like, I have no doubt, to see a fine gentleman-saint, like your friend Mr St Lys, at Marney, preaching in cottages, filling the people with discontent, lecturing me about low wages, soliciting plots of grounds for new churches, and inveigling Arabella into subscriptions to painted windows."

"I certainly should like to see a man like Aubrey St Lys at Marney," said Egremont quietly, but rather doggedly.

"And if he were here, I would soon see who should be master," said Lord Marney; "I would not succumb like Mowbray. One might as well have a jesuit in the house at once."

"I dare say St Lys would care very little about entering your house," said Egremont. "I know it was with great reluctance that he ever came to Mowbray Castle."

"I dare say; very great reluctance indeed. And very reluctant he was, I make no doubt, to sit next to Lady Maud. I wonder he does not fly higher, and preach to Lady Joan; but she is too sensible a woman for such fanatical tricks."

"St Lys thinks it his duty to enter all societies. That is the reason why he goes to Mowbray Castle, as well as to the squalid courts and cellars of the town. He takes care that those who are clad in purple and fine linen shall know the state of their neighbours. They cannot at least plead ignorance for the nonfulfilment of their duty. Before St Lys's time, the family at Mowbray Castle might as well have not existed, as far as benefiting their miserable vicinage. It would be well perhaps for other districts not less wretched, and for other families as high and favoured as the Mowbrays, if there were a Mr St Lys on the spot instead of a Mr Slimsey."

"I suppose that is meant for a cut," said Lord Marney; "but I wish the people were as well off in every part of the country as they are on my estate. They get here their eight shillings a week, always at least seven, and every hand is at this moment in employ, except a parcel of scoundrels who prefer woodstealing and poaching, and who would prefer wood-stealing and poaching if you gave them double the wages. The rate of wages is nothing: certainty is the thing; and every man at Marney may he sure of his seven shillings a-week for at least nine months in the year; and for the other three, they can go to the House, and a very proper place for them; it is heated with hot air, and has every comfort. Even Marney Abbey is not heated with hot air. I have often thought of it; it makes me mad sometimes to think of those lazy, pampered menials passing their lives with their backs to a great roaring fire; but I am afraid of the flues."

"I wonder, talking of fires, that you are not more afraid of burning ricks," said Egremont.

"It's an infernal lie," said Lord Marney, very violently.

"What is?" said Egremont.

"That there is any incendiarism in this neighbourhood."

"Why, there was a fire the day after I came."

"That had nothing to do with wages; it was an accident. I examined into it myself; so did Grouse, so did Slimsey; I sent them about everywhere. I told them I was sure the fire was purely accidental, and to go and see about it; and they came back and agreed that it was purely accidental."

"I dare say they did," said Egremont; "but no one has discovered the accident."

"For my part, I believe it was spontaneous combustion," said Lord Marney.

"That is a satisfactory solution." said Egremont, "but for my part, the fire being a fact, and it being painfully notorious that the people of Marney—"

"Well, sir, the people of Marney"—said his lordship fiercely.

"Are without question the most miserable population in the county."

"Did Mr St Lys tell you that?" interrupted Lord Marney, white with rage.

"No, not Mr Lys, but one better acquainted with the neighbourhood."

"I'll know your informant's name," said Lord Marney with energy.

"My informant was a woman," said Egremont.

"Lady Maud, I suppose; second-hand from Mr St Lys."

"Mv informant was a woman, and one of the people," said Egremont.

"Some poacher's drab! I don't care what women say, high or low, they always exaggerate."

"The misery of a family who live upon seven or even eight shillings a-week can scarcely be exaggerated."

"What should you know about it? Did you ever live on seven or eight shillings a-week? What can you know about the people who pass your time at London clubs or in fine country houses? I suppose you want the people to live as they do at a house dinner at Boodle's. I say that a family can live very well on seven shillings a-week, and on eight shillings very well indeed. The poor are very well off,at least the agricultural poor, very well off indeed. Their incomes are certain, that is a great point, and they have no cares, no anxieties; they always have a resource, they always have the House. People without cares do not require as much food as those whose life entails anxieties. See how long they live! Compare the rate of mortality among them with that of the manufacturing districts. Incendiarism indeed! If there had been a proper rural police, such a thing as incendiarism would never have been heard of!"

There was a pause. Lord Marney dashed off another bumper; Egremont sipped his wine. At length he said, "This argument made me forget the principal reason, George, why I am glad that we are alone together to-day. I am sorry to bore you, but I am bored myself deucedly. I find a letter from my agent. These election accounts must be settled."

"Why, I thought they were settled."

"How do you mean?"

"I thought my mother had given you a thousand pounds."

"No doubt of that, but that was long ago disposed of."

"In my opinion quite enough for a seat in these times. Instead of paying to get into Parliament, a man ought to be paid for entering it."

"There may be a good deal in what you say," said Egremont; "but it is too late to take that view of the business. The expense has been incurred and must be met."

"I don't see that," said Lord Marney, "we have paid one thousand pounds and there is a balance unsettled. When was there ever a contest without a balance being unsettled? I remember hearing my father often say that when he stood for this county, our grandfather paid more than a hundred thousand pounds, and yet I know to this day there are accounts unsettled. Regularly every year I receive anonymous letters threatening me with fearful punishment if I don't pay one hundred and fifty pounds for a breakfast at the Jolly Tinkers."

"You jest: the matter indeed requires a serious vein. I wish these accounts to be settled at once."

"And I should like to know where the funds are to come from! I have none. The quantity of barns I am building now is something tremendous! Then this rage for draining; it would dry up any purse. What think you of two million tiles this year? And rents,—to keep up which we are making these awful sacrifices—they are merely nominal, or soon will be. They never will be satisfied till they have touched the land. That is clear to me. I am prepared for a reduction of five-and-twenty per cent; if the corn laws are touched, it can't be less than that. My mother ought to take it into consideration and reduce her jointure accordingly. But I dare say she will not; people are so selfish; particularly as she has given you this thousand pounds, which in fact after all comes out of my pocket."

"All this you have said to me before. What does it mean? I fought this battle at the instigation of the family, from no feeling of my own. You are the head of the family and you were consulted on the step. Unless I had concluded that it was with your sanction, I certainly should not have made my appearance on the hustings."

"I am very glad you did though," said Lord Marney; "Parliament is a great point for our class: in these days especially, more even than in the old time. I was truly rejoiced at your success, and it mortified the whigs about us most confoundedly. Some people thought there was only one family in the world to have their Richmond or their Malton. Getting you in for the old borough was really a coup."

"Well now, to retain our interest," said Egremont, "quick payment of our expenses is the most efficient way, believe me."

"You have got six years, perhaps seven," said Lord Marney, "and long before that I hope to find you the husband of Lady Joan Fitz-Warene."

"I do not wish to connect the two contingencies," said Egremont firmly.

"They are inseparable," said Lord Marney.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I think this pedantic acquittance of an electioneering account is in the highest degree ridiculous, and that I cannot interfere in it. The legal expenses are you say paid; and if they were not, I should feel myself bound, as the head of the family, to defray them, but I can go no further. I cannot bring myself to sanction an expenditure for certainly very unnecessary, perhaps, and I much fear it, for illegal and very immoral purposes."

"That really is your determination?"

"After the most mature reflection, prompted by a sincere solicitude for your benefit."

"Well, George, I have often suspected it, but now I feel quite persuaded, that you are really the greatest humbug that ever existed."

"Abuse is not argument, Mr Egremont."

"You are beneath abuse, as you are beneath every sentiment but one, which I most entirely feel," and Egremont rose from the table.

"You may thank your own obstinacy and conceit," said Lord Marney. "I took you to Mowbray Castle, and the cards were in your own hands if you chose to play them."

"You have interfered with me once before on such a subject. Lord Marney," said Egremont, with a kindling eye and a cheek pallid with rage.

"You had better not say that again," said Lord Marney in a tone of menace.

"Why not?" asked Egremont fiercely. "Who and what are you to dare to address me thus?"

"I am your elder brother, sir, whose relationship to you is your only claim to the consideration of society."

"A curse on the society that has fashioned such claims." said Egremont in an heightened tone—"claims founded in selfishness, cruelty, and fraud, and leading to demoralization, misery, and crime."

"Claims which I will make you respect, at least in this house, sir," said Lord Marney, springing from his chair.

"Touch me at your peril!" exclaimed Egremont, "or I will forget you are my mother's son, and cleave you to the ground. You have been the blight of my life; you stole from me my bride, and now you would rob me of my honour."

"Liar and villain!" exclaimed Lord Marney, darting forward: but at this moment his wife rushed into the apartment and clung to him. "For heaven's sake," she exclaimed, "What is all this? George, Charles, dearest George!"

"Let me go, Arabella."

"Let him come on."

But Lady Marney gave a piercing shriek, and held out her arms to keep the brothers apart. A sound was heard at the other door; there was nothing in the world that Lord Marney dreaded so much as that his servants should witness a domestic scene. He sprang forward to the door to prevent any one entering; partially opening it, he said Lady Marney was unwell and desired her maid; returning, he found Arabella insensible on the ground, and Egremont vanished!