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Tales from Many Sources / Vol. V By Various Characters: 22986

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Every one who knows Oxford, and a good many besides, must have heard of certain periodical migrations of the younger members of that learned university into distant and retired parts of her Majesty's dominions, which (on the "lucus a non lucendo" principle) are called and known by the name of Reading Parties. Some half-dozen undergraduates, in peril of the coming examination, form themselves into a joint-stock cramming company; take £30 or £40 shares in a private tutor; pitch their camp in some Dan or Beersheba which has a reputation for dulness; and, like other joint-stock companies, humbug the public, and sometimes themselves, into the belief that they are "doing business." For these classical bubbles, the long vacation is the usual season, and Wales one of the favourite localities; and certainly, putting "Reading" out of the question, three fine summer months might be worse spent, than in climbing the mountains, and whipping the trout-streams, of that romantic land. Many a quiet sea-side town, or picturesque fishing-village, might be mentioned, which owes no little of its summer gaiety, and perhaps something of its prosperity, to the annual visit of "the Oxonians:" many a fair girl has been indebted for the most piquant flirtation of the season to the "gens togata," who were reading at the little watering-place to which fate and papa had carried her for the race-week or the hunt-ball: and whatever the effect of these voluntary rustications upon the class lists in Oxford, they certainly have procured for the parties occasionally a very high "provincial celebrity." I know that when we beat our retreat from summer quarters at Glyndewi in 18-, the sighs of our late partners were positively heart-rending, and the blank faces of the deserted billiard-marker and solitary livery-stable groom haunt me to this day.

I had been endeavouring, by hard reading for the last three months, to work up the arrears of three years of college idleness, when my evil genius himself, in the likeness of George Gordon of Trinity, persuaded me to put the finishing-touch to my education, by joining a party who were going down to Glyndewi, in --shire, "really to read." In an unguarded moment I consented; packed up books enough to last me for five years, reading at the rate of twenty-four hours per day, wrote to the governor announcing my virtuous intention, and was formally introduced to the Rev. Mr Hanmer, Gordon's tutor, as one of his "cubs" for the long vacation.

Six of us there were to be; a very mixed party, and not well mixed-a social chaos. We had an exquisite from St Mary Hall, a pea-coated Brazen-nose boatman, a philosophical water-drinker and union-debater from Baliol, and a two-bottle man from Christ Church. When we first met, it was like oil and water; it seemed as if we might be churned together for a century, and never coalesce: but in time, like punch-making, it turned out that the very heterogeneousness of the ingredients was the zest of the compound.

I had never heard of such a place as Glyndewi, nor had I an idea how to get there. Gordon and Hanmer were gone already; so I packed myself on the top of the Shrewsbury mail, as the direct communication between Oxford and North Wales, and there became acquainted with No. 2 of my fellows in transportation (for, except Gordon and myself, we were all utter strangers to each other). "I say, Hawkins, let's feel those ribbons a bit, will you?" quoth the occupant of the box-seat to our respectable Jehu. "Can't indeed, sir, with these hosses: it's as much as ever I can do to hold this here near leader." This was satisfactory. Risking one's neck in a tandem was all very well-a part of the regular course of an Oxford education; but amateur drivers of stage coaches I had always a prejudice against: let gentlemen keep their own four-in-hands, and upset themselves and families, as they have an undeniable right to do-but not the public. I looked at the first speaker; at his pea-jacket, that is, which was all I could see of him: Oxford decidedly. His cigar was Oxford too, by the villanous smell of it. He took the coachman's implied distrust of his professional experience good-humouredly enough, proffered him his cigar-case, and entered into a discussion on the near leader's moral and physical qualities. "I'll trouble you for a light, if you please," said I. He turned round, we stuck the ends of our cigars together, and puffed into each other's faces for about a minute (my cigars were dampish), as grave as North American Indians. "Thank you," said I, as the interesting ceremony was concluded, and our acquaintance begun. We got into conversation, when it appeared that he too was bound for the undiscovered shores of Glyndewi, and that we were therefore likely to be companions for the next three months. He was an off-hand, good-humoured fellow; drank brandy-and-water, treated the coachman, and professed an acquaintance with bar-maids in general, and pretty ones in particular, on our line of road. He was going up for a class, he supposed, he said; the governor had taken a "second below the line" himself, and insisted upon his emulating the paternal distinction; d--d nonsense, he said, in his opinion: except that the governor had a couple of harriers with Greek names, he did not see that his classics were of any use to him; and no doubt but that Hylax and Phryne would run just as well if they had been called Stormer and Merry Lass. However, he must rub up all his old Eton books this "long," and get old Hanmer to lay it on thick. Such was Mr Branling of Brazen-nose.

At Shrewsbury, we were saluted with the intelligence, "Coach dines here, gentlemen." We found a couple of fowls that the coach might probably have dined upon, and digested with other articles-in the hind boot; to human stomachs they seemed impracticable. We employed the allotted ten minutes upon a leg of mutton, and ascended again to our stations on the roof; and here was an addition to our party. Externally, it consisted of a mackintosh and a fur cap: in the very short interval between the turned-down flap of the one and the turned-up collar of the other, were a pair of grey glass spectacles, and part of a nose. So far we had no very sufficient premises from which to draw conclusions, whether or not he were "one of us." But there were internal evidences; an odour of Bouquet de Roi, or some such villanous compound, nearly overpowering the fragrance of some genuine weed which I had supplied my pea-coated friend with in the place of his Oxford "Havannahs;" a short cough occasionally, as though the smoke of the said weed were not altogether "the perfume of the lips he loved;" and a resolute taciturnity. What was he? It is a lamentable fact, that an Oxford undergraduate does not invariably look the gentleman. He vibrates between the fashionable assurance of a London swindler and the modest diffidence of an overgrown schoolboy. There is usually a degree of unfinishedness about him. He seems to be assuming a character: unlike the glorious Burschenschaft of Germany, he has no character of his own. However, for want of more profitable occupation, we set to work in earnest to discover who our fellow-traveller really was; and by a series of somewhat American conversational inquiries, we at last fished out that he was going into --shire, like ourselves-nay, in answer to a direct question on the subject, that he hoped to meet Hanmer of Trinity at Glyndewi. But no further information could we get: our new friend was reserved. Mr Branling and I had commenced intimacy already. "My name is Branling of Brazen-nose;" "and mine Hawthorne of --;" was our concise introduction. But our companion was the pink of Oxford correctness on this point. He thanked the porter for putting his luggage up; called me "Sir," till he found I was an Oxford man; and had we travelled for a month together, would rather have requested the coachman to introduce us, than be guilty of any such barbarism as to introduce himself. So by degrees our intimacy, instead of warming, waxed cold. As night drew on, and the fire of cigars from Branling, self, and coachman became more deadly, the fur cap was drawn still closer over the ears, the mackintosh crept up higher, and we lost sight of all but the outline of the spectacles.

The abominable twitter of the sparrows in the hedgerows gave notice of the break of day-to travellers the most dismal of all hours, in my opinion-when I awoke from the comfortable nap into which I had fallen since the last change of horses. For some time we alternately dozed, tumbled against each other, begged pardon, and awoke; till at last the sun broke out gloriously as we drove into the cheerful little town of B--.

A good breakfast set us all to rights, and made even our friend in the mackintosh talkative. He came out most in the character of tea-maker (an office, by the way, which he filled to the general satisfaction of his constituents during our stay in North Wales). We found out that he was a St Mary Hall man, with a duplicate name: Mr Sydney Dawson, as the cards on his multifarious luggage set forth: that he was an aspirant for "anything he could get" in the way of honours (humble aspiration as it seemed, it was not destined to be gratified, for he got nothing). He thought he might find some shooting and fishing in Wales, so had brought with him a gun-case and a setter; though his pretensions to sportsmanship proved to be rather of the cockney order. For three months he was the happily unconscious butt of our party, and yet never but once was his good-humour seriously interrupted.

From B-- to Glyndewi we had been told we must make our way as we could: and a council of war, which included boots and the waiter, ended in the arrival of the owner of one of the herring-boats, of which there were several under "the terrace." "Was you wish to go to Glyndewi, gentlemen? I shall take you so quick as any way; she is capital wind, and you shall have fine sail." A man who could speak such undeniable English was in himself a treasure; for an ineffectual attempt at a bargain for some lobsters (even with a "Welsh interpreter" in our hands) had warned us that there were in this Christian country unknown tongues which would have puzzled even the Rev. Edward Irving. So the bargain was struck: in half an hour ourselves and traps were alongside the boat: and after waiting ten minutes for the embarkation of Mr Sydney Dawson and his dog Sholto, who seemed to have an abhorrence of sea-voyages, Branling at last hauled in the latter in the last agonies of strangulation, and his master having tumbled in over him, to the detriment of a pair of clean whites and a cerulean waistcoat, we-i. e. the rest of us-set sail for Glyndewi in high spirits.

Our boatmen were intelligent fellows, and very anxious to display their little stock of English. They knew Mr Hanmer well, they said-he had been at Glyndewi the summer before; he was "nice free gentleman;" and they guessed immediately the object of our pilgrimage: Glyndewi was "very much for learning;" did not gentlemen from Oxford College, and gentlemen from Cambridge College, all come there? We warned him not on any account to couple us in his mind with "Cambridge gentlemen:" we were quite a distinct species, we assured him. (They had beaten us that year in the eight-oar match on the Thames.) But there seemed no sufficient reason for disabusing their minds of the notion that this

influx of students was owing to something classical in the air of Glyndewi; indeed, supposing this theory to be wrong, it was no easy matter to substitute a sounder one. In what did the superiority of Mrs Jenkins's smoky parlour at Glyndewi consist, for the purposes of reading for a degree, compared with my pleasant rooms looking into -- gardens at Oxford, or the governor's snug library at home? It is an abstruse question. Parents and guardians, indeed, whose part upon the stage of life, as upon the theatrical stage, consists principally in submitting to be more or less humbugged, attribute surprising effects to a fancied absence of all amusements, with a mill-horse round of Greek, Latin, and logic, early rising, and walks in the country with a pocket Horace. From my own experience of reading parties, I should select as their peculiar characteristics a tendency to hats and caps of such remarkable shapes as, if once sported in the college quadrangle, would be the subject of a common-room instanter; and, among some individuals (whom we may call the peripatetic philosophers of the party) a predilection for seedy shooting-coats and short pipes, with which they perambulate the neighbourhood to the marvel of the aboriginal inhabitants; while those whom we may class with the stoics, display a preference for dressing-gowns and meerschaums, and confine themselves principally to the doorways and open windows of their respective lodgings. How far these "helps to knowledge"-for which Oxford certainly does not afford equal facilities-conduce to the required first or second class, is a question I do not feel competent to decide; but if reading-parties do succeed, the secret of their success may at least as probably lie in these hitherto unregarded phenomena.

Five hours of a fair wind brought us to Glyndewi. Here we found Hanmer and Gordon, who had taken a house for the party, and seemed already domesticated. I cannot say that we were royally lodged: the rooms were low, and the terms high; but as no one thought of taking lodgings at Glyndewi in the winter, and the rats consequently lived in them rent-free for six months, it was but fair somebody should pay: and we did. "Attendance" we had into the bargain. Now, attendance at a lodging-house has been defined to be, the privilege of ringing your bell as often as you please, provided you do not expect any one to answer it. But the bell-ropes in Mrs Jenkins's parlours being only ornamental appendages, our privilege was confined to calling upon the landing-place for a red-headed female, who, when she did come, which was seldom, was terrible to look upon, and could only be conversed with by pantomime.

To do Mrs Jenkins and "Gwenny" justice, they were scrupulously clean in everything but their own persons, which, the latter's especially, seemed to have monopolised the dirt of the whole establishment. College bedrooms are not luxurious affairs, so we were not inclined to be captious on that head; and we slept soundly, and awoke with a determination to make our first voyage of discovery in a charitable spirit.

The result of our morning's stroll was the unanimous conclusion that Glyndewi was a rising place. It did not seem inclined to rise all at once though; but in patches here and there, with a quarter of a mile or so between, like what we read of the great sea-serpent. (I fear this individual is no more; this matter-of-fact age has been the death of him.) There were two long streets-one parallel to the quay (or, as the more refined call it, "the terrace"), and the other at right angles to it. The first was Herring Street-the second Goose Street. At least such were the ancient names, which I give for the benefit of antiquarian readers. Since the then Princess Victoria visited B--, the loyalty of the Glyndewi people had changed "Herring" into "Victoria;" and her royal consort has since had the equivocal compliment paid him of transmuting "Goose Street" into "Albert Buildings." I trust it will not be considered disloyal to say, that the original sponsors-the geese and the herrings-seem to me to have been somewhat hardly used; having done more for their namesakes than, as far as I can learn, their royal successors even promised.

Glyndewi was rising, however, in more respects than in the matter of taste in nomenclature. Tall houses, all front and windows, were stuck up here and there; sometimes with a low fisherman's cottage between them, whose sinking roof and bulging walls looked as if, like the frog in the fable, it had burst in the vain attempt to rival its majestic neighbour. At one end stood a large hotel with a small business, and an empty billiard-room; at the other, a wall six inches high marked the spot where subscription-rooms were to be built for the accommodation of visitors and the public generally, as set forth in the prospectus, as soon as the visitors and the public chose to find the money. Nearly the whole of the village was the property of a gentleman who had built the hotel and billiard-room, and run up a few lodging-houses on a speculation, which seemed at best a doubtful one, of making it in time a fashionable watering-place.

Glyndewi had been recommended to us as a quiet place. It was quiet-horribly quiet. Not the quiet of green fields and deep woods, the charm of country life; but the quiet of a teetotal supper-party, or a college in vacation. "Just the place for reading: no gaiety-no temptations." So I had written to tell the governor, in the ardour of my setting forth as one of a "reading-party:" alas! it was a fatal mistake. Had it been an ordinarily cheerful place, I think one or two of us could and would have read there; as it was, our whole wits were set to work to enliven its dulness. It took us as long to invent an amusement, as would have sufficed elsewhere for getting tired of half-a-dozen different dissipations. The very reason which made us fix upon it as a place to read in, proved in our case the source of unmitigated idleness. "No temptations," indeed! there were no temptations-the only temptation I felt there was to hang or drown myself, and there was not a tree six feet high within as many miles, and the Dewi was a river "darkly, deeply, beautifully"-muddy; it would have been smothering rather. We should not have staid to the end of the first month, had it not been for very shame; but to run away from a reading-party would have been a joke against us for ever. So from the time we got up in the morning, until we climbed Mrs Jenkins's domestic tread-mill again at night, the one question was, what should we do with ourselves? Walk? there were the A-- and B-- roads-three miles of sand and dust either way. Before us was the bay-behind the --shire mountains, up which one might walk some sixteen miles (in the month of July), and get the same view from each successive point you reached: viz., a hill before you, which you thought must be the top at last, and Glyndewi-of which we knew the number of houses, and the number of windows in each-behind. Ride then?-the two hacks kept by mine host of the Mynysnewydd Arms deserve a history to themselves. Rosinante would have been ashamed to be seen grazing in the same field with such caricatures of his race. There was a board upon a house a few doors off, announcing that "pleasure and other boats" were to be let on hire. All the boats that we were acquainted with must have been the "other" ones-for they smelled of herrings, sailed at about the pace of a couple of freshmen in a "two-oar," and gave very pretty exercise-to those who were fond of it-in baling. As for reading, we were like the performers at a travelling theatre-always "going to begin."

Branling, indeed, did once shut himself up in his bedroom, as we afterwards ascertained, with a box of cigars and a black and tan terrier, and read for three weeks on end in the peculiar atmosphere thus created. Willingham of Christ Church, and myself, had what was called the dining-room in common, and proceeded so far on the third day after our arrival, as to lay out a very imposing spread of books upon all the tables; and there it remained in evidence of our good intentions, until the first time we were called upon to do the honours of an extempore luncheon. Unfortunately, from the very first, Willingham and myself were set down by Hanmer as the idle men of the party; this sort of prophetical discrimination, which tutors at Oxford are very much in the habit of priding themselves upon, tends, like other prophecies, to work its own fulfilment. Did a civil Welshman favour us with a call? "Show him in to Mr Hawthorne and Mr Willingham; I dare say they are not very busy"-quoth our Jupiter tonans from on high in the dining-room, where he held his court; and accordingly in he came. We had Stilton and bottled porter in charge for these occasions from the common stock; but the honours of all these visits were exclusively our own, as far as house-room went. In dropped the rest of the party, one by one. Hanmer himself pitched the Ethics into a corner to make room, as he said, for substantials, the froth of bottled Guinness damped the eloquence of Cicero, and Branling having twisted up my analysis of the last-read chapter into a light for his cigar, there was an end of our morning's work. How could we read? That was what we always said, and there was some truth in it.

Mr Branling's reading fit was soon over too; and having cursed the natives for barbarians, because there was not a pack of harriers within ten miles, which confirmed him in the opinion he had always expressed of their utter want of civilisation (for, as he justly remarked, not one in a dozen could even speak decent English), he waited impatiently for September, when he had got leave from some Mr Williams or Jones-I never remembered which-to shoot over a considerable range about Glyndewi.

But with the 20th of August a change came o'er the spirit of our dream. Hitherto we had seen little of any of the neighbouring families, excepting that of a Captain George Phillips, who, living only three miles off, on the bank of the river, and having three sons and two daughters, and keeping a pretty yacht, had given us a dinner-party or two, and a pleasant day's sail. Capital fellows were the young Phillipses: Nature's gentlemen; unsophisticated, hearty Welshmen; lads from sixteen to twenty. Down they used to come in a most dangerous little craft of their own, which went by the name of the "Coroner's Inquest," to smoke cigars, (against which the Captain had published an interdict at home), and question us about Oxford larks, and tell us in return stories of wild-fowl shooting, otter-hunting, and salmon-fishing, in all which they were proficient.

Our establishment was not an imposing one, but of them we made no strangers. Once they came, I remember, self-invited to dinner, in a most unfortunate state of our larder. The weekly half sheep had not arrived from B--; to get anything in Glyndewi, beyond the native luxuries of bacon and herrings, was hopeless; and our dinner happened to be a leash of fowls, of which we had just purchased a live supply. Mrs Glasse would have been in despair; we took it coolly; to the three boiled fowls at top, we added three roast ditto at bottom, and by unanimous consent of both guests and entertainers, a more excellent dinner was never put on table.

But the 20th of August the day of the Glyndewi regatta!-that must have a chapter to itself.

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