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   Chapter 4 THE ST. AMBROSE BOAT CLUB ITS MINISTERY AND THEIR BUDGET.

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 20488

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


We left our hero, a short time back, busily engaged on his dinner commons, and resolved forthwith to make great friends with Hardy. It never occurred to him that there could be the slightest difficulty in carrying out this resolve. After such a passage as they two had had together that afternoon, he felt that the usual outworks of acquaintanceship had been cleared at a bound, and looked upon Hardy already as an old friend to whom he could talk out his mind as freely as he had been used to do to his old tutor at school, or to Arthur. Moreover, as there were already several things in his head which he was anxious to ventilate, he was all the more pleased that chance had thrown him across a man of so much older standing than himself, and one to whom he instinctively felt that he could look up.

Accordingly, after grace had been said, and he saw that Hardy had not finished his dinner, but sat down again when the fellows had left the hall, he strolled out, meaning to wait for his victim outside, and seize upon him then and there; so he stopped on the steps outside the hall-door, and to pass the time, joined himself to one or two other men with whom he had a speaking acquaintance, who were also hanging about. While they were talking, Hardy came out of the hall, and Tom turned and stepped forward, meaning to speak to him. To his utter discomfiture, Hardy walked quickly away, looking straight before him, and without showing, by look or gesture, that he was conscious of our hero's existence, or had ever seen him before in his life.

Tom was so taken aback that he made no effort to follow. He just glanced at his companions to see whether they had noticed the occurrence, and was glad to see that they had not (being deep in the discussion of the merits of a new hunter of Simmons's, which one of them had been riding); so he walked away by himself to consider what it could mean. But the more he puzzled about it, the less could he understand it. Surely, he thought, Hardy must have seen me; and yet, if he had, why did he not recognize me? My cap and gown can't be such a disguise as all that. And yet common decency must have led him to ask whether I was any the worse for my ducking, if he knew me.

He scouted the notion, which suggested itself once or twice, that Hardy meant to cut him; and so, not being able to come to any reasonable conclusion, suddenly bethought him that he was asked to a wine-party; and putting his speculations aside for a moment, with the full intention nevertheless of clearing up the mystery as soon as possible, he betook himself to the rooms of his entertainer.

They were fair-sized rooms in the second quadrangle, furnished plainly but well, so far as Tom could judge, but, as they were now laid out for the wine-party, they had lost all individual character for the time. Everyone of us, I suppose, is fond of studying the rooms, chambers, dens in short, of whatever sort they may be, of our friends and acquaintances-at least, I knew that I myself like to see what sort of a chair a man sits in, where he puts it, what books lie or stand on the shelves nearest his hand, what the objects are which he keeps most familiarly before him, in that particular nook of the earth's surface in which he is most at home, where he pulls off his coat, collar, and boots, and gets into an old easy shooting-jacket, and his broadest slippers. Fine houses and fine rooms have little attraction for most men, and those who have the finest drawing-rooms are probably the most bored by them; but the den of the man you like, or are disposed to like, has the strongest and strangest attraction for you. However, an Oxford undergraduate's room, set out for a wine-party, can tell you nothing. All the characteristics are shoved away into the background, and there is nothing to be seen but a long mahogany set out with bottles, glasses, and dessert. In the present instance the preparations for festivity were pretty much what they ought to be: good sound port and sherry, biscuits, and a plate or two of nuts and dried fruits. The host, who sat at the head of the board, was one of the main-stays of the College boat-club. He was treasurer of the club, and also a kind of a boating nurse, who looked-up and trained the young oars, and in this capacity had been in command of the freshmen's four-oar, in which Tom had been learning his rudiments. He was a heavy, burly man, naturally awkward in his movements, but gifted with a steady sort of dogged enthusiasm, and by dint of hard and constant training, had made himself into a most useful oar, fit for any place in the middle of the boat. In the two years of his residence, he had pulled down to Sandford every day except Sundays, and much farther whenever he could get anybody to accompany him. He was the most good natured man in the world, very badly dressed, very short sighted, and called everybody "old fellow." His name was simple Smith, generally known as Diogenes Smith, from an eccentric habit which he had of making an easy chair of his hip bath. Malicious acquaintance declared that when Smith first came up, and, having paid the valuation for the furniture in his rooms, came to inspect the same, the tub in question had been left by chance in the sitting-room, and that Smith, not having the faintest idea of its proper use, had by the exercise of his natural reason come to the conclusion that it could only be meant for a man to sit in, and so had kept it in his sitting-room, and had taken to it as an arm-chair. This I have reason to believe was a libel. Certain it is, however, that in his first term he was discovered sitting solemnly in the tub, by his fire-side, with his spectacles on, playing the flute-the only other recreation besides boating in which he indulged; and no amount of quizzing could get him out of the habit. When alone, or with only one or two friends in his room, he still occupied the tub; and declared that it was the most perfect of seats hitherto invented, and, above all, adapted for the recreation of a boating man, to whom cushioned seats should be an abomination. He was naturally a very hospitable man, and on this night was particularly anxious to make his rooms pleasant to all comers, as it was a sort of opening for the boating season. This wine of his was a business matter, in fact, to which Diogenes had invited officially, as treasurer of the boat-club, every man who had ever shown the least tendency to pulling,-many with whom he had scarcely a nodding acquaintance. For Miller, the coxswain, had come up at last. He had taken his B.A. degree in the Michaelmas term, and had been very near starting for a tour in the East. Upon turning the matter over in his mind, however, Miller had come to the conclusion that Palestine, and Egypt, and Greece could not run away, but that, unless he was there to keep matters going, the St. Ambrose boat would lose the best chance it was ever likely to have of getting to the head of the river. So he had patriotically resolved to reside till June, read divinity, and coach the racing crew; and had written to Diogenes to call together the whole boating interest of the College, that they might set to work at once in good earnest. Tom, and the three or four other freshmen present, were duly presented to Miller as they came in, who looked them over as the colonel of a crack regiment might look over horses at Horncastle-fair, with a single eye to their bone and muscle, and how much work might be got out of them. They then gathered towards the lower end of the long table, and surveyed the celebrities at the upper end with much respect. Miller, the coxswain, sat on the host's right hand,-a slight, resolute, fiery little man, with curly black hair. He was peculiarly qualified by nature for the task which he had set himself; and it takes no mean qualities to keep a boat's crew well together and in order. Perhaps he erred a little on the side of over-strictness and severity; and he certainly would have been more popular had his manners been a thought more courteous; but the men who rebelled most against his tyranny grumblingly confessed that he was a first-rate coxswain.

A very different man was the captain of the boat, who sat opposite to Miller; altogether, a noble specimen of a very noble type of our countrymen. Tall and strong of body; courageous and even-tempered; tolerant of all men; sparing of speech, but ready in action; a thoroughly well balanced, modest, quiet Englishman; one of those who do a good stroke of the work of the country without getting much credit for it, or even becoming aware of the fact; for the last thing such men understand is how to blow their own trumpets. He was perhaps too easy for the captain of St. Ambrose boat-club; at any rate, Miller was always telling him so. But, if he was not strict enough with others, he never spared himself, and was as good as three men in the boat at a pinch.

But if I venture on more introductions, my readers will get bewildered; so I must close the list, much as I should like to make them known to "fortis Gyas fortisque Cloanthus," who sat round the chiefs, laughing and consulting, and speculating on the chances of the coming races. No, stay, there is one other man they must make room for. Here he comes, rather late, in a very glossy hat, the only man in the room not in cap and gown. He walks up and takes his place by the side of the host as a matter of course; a handsome, pale man, with a dark, quick eye, conscious that he draws attention wherever he goes, and apparently of the opinion that it is right.

"Who is that who has just come in in beaver?" said Tom, touching the next man to him.

"Oh, don't you know? that's Blake; he's the most wonderful fellow in Oxford," answered his neighbor.

"How do you mean?" said Tom.

"Why, he can do everything better than almost anybody, and without any trouble at all. Miller was obliged to have him in the boat last year, though he never trained a bit. Then he's in the eleven, and is a wonderful rider, and tennis-player, and shot."

"Ay, and he's so awfully clever with it all," joined in the man on the other side. "He'll be a safe first, though I don't believe he reads more than you or

I. He can write songs, too, as fast as you can talk nearly, and sings them wonderfully."

"Is he of our College, then?"

"Yes, of course, or he couldn't have been in our boat last year."

"But I don't think I ever saw him in chapel or hall"

"No, I daresay not. He hardly ever goes to either, and yet he manages never to get hauled up much, no one knows how. He never gets up now till the afternoon, and sits up nearly all night playing cards with the fastest fellows, or going round singing glees at three or four in the morning."

Tom sipped his port and looked with great interest at the admirable Crichton of St. Ambrose's; and, after watching him a few moments said in a low voice to his neighbor,

"How wretched he looks! I never saw a sadder face."

Poor Blake! one can't help calling him "poor," although he himself would have winced at it more than any name you could have called him. You might have admired, feared, or wondered at him, and he would have been pleased; the object of his life was to raise such feelings in his neighbors; but pity was the last which he would like to excite.

He was indeed a wonderfully gifted fellow, full of all sorts of energy and talent, and power and tenderness; and yet, as his face told only too truly to anyone who watched him when he was exerting himself in society, one of the most wretched men in the College. He had a passion for success-for beating everybody else in whatever he took in hand, and that, too, without seeming to make any great effort himself. The doing a thing well and thoroughly gave him no satisfaction unless he could feel that he was doing it better and more easily than A, B, or C, and they felt and acknowledged this. He had had full swing of success for two years, and now the Nemesis was coming.

For, although not an extravagant man, many of the pursuits in which he has eclipsed all rivals were far beyond the means of any but a rich one, and Blake was not rich. He had a fair allowance, but by the end of his first year was considerably in debt, and, at the time we are speaking of, the whole pack of Oxford tradesmen into whose books he had got (having smelt out the leaness of his expectations), were upon him, besieging him for payment. This miserable and constant annoyance was wearing his soul out. This was the reason why his oak was sported, and he was never seen till the afternoons, and turned night into day. He was too proud to come to an understanding with his persecutors, even had it been possible; and now, at his sorest need, his whole scheme of life was failing him; his love of success was turning into ashes in his mouth; he felt much more disgust than pleasure at his triumphs over other men, and yet the habit of striving for successes, notwithstanding its irksomeness, was too strong to be resisted.

Poor Blake! he was living on from hand to mouth, flashing out in his old brilliancy and power, and forcing himself to take the lead in whatever company he might be; but utterly lonely and depressed when by himself-reading feverishly in secret, in a desperate effort to retrieve all by high honors and a fellowship. As Tom said to his neighbor, there was no sadder face than his to be seen in Oxford.

And yet at this very wine party he was the life of everything, as he sat up there between Diogenes-whom he kept in a constant sort of mild epileptic fit, from laughter, and wine going the wrong way (for whenever Diogenes raised his glass Blake shot him with some joke)-and the Captain who watched him with the most undisguised admiration. A singular contrast, the two men! Miller, though Blake was the torment of his life, relaxed after the first quarter of all hour; and our hero, by the same time, gave himself credit for being a much greater ass than he was, for having ever thought Blake's face a sad one.

When the room was quite full, and enough wine had been drunk to open the hearts of the guests, Diogenes rose on a signal from Miller, and opened the budget. The financial statement was a satisfactory one; the club was almost free of debt; and, comparing their position with that of other colleges, Diogenes advised that they might fairly burden themselves a little more, and then, if they would stand a whip of ten shillings a man, they might have a new boat, which he believed they all would agree had become necessary. Miller supported the new boat in a pungent little speech; and the Captain, when appealed to, nodded and said he thought they must have one. So the small supplies and the large addition to the club debt was voted unanimously, and the Captain, Miller, and Blake, who had many notions as to the flooring, lines, and keel of a racing boat, were appointed to order and superintend the building.

Soon afterwards, coffee came in and cigars were lighted; a large section of the party went off to play pool, others to stroll about the streets, others to whist; a few, let us hope, to their own rooms to read; but these latter were a sadly small minority even in the quietest of St. Ambrose parties.

Tom, who was fascinated by the heroes at the head of the table, sat steadily on, sidling up towards them as the intermediate places became vacant, and at last attained the next chair but one to the Captain, where for the time he sat in perfect bliss. Blake and Miller were telling boating stories of the Henley and Thames regattas, the latter of which had been lately started with great eclat; and from these great yearly events, and the deeds of prowess done thereat, the talk came gradually round to the next races.

"Now, Captain," said Miller, suddenly, "have you thought yet what new men we are to try in the crew this year?"

"No, 'pon my honor I haven't," said the Captain, "I'm reading, and have no time to spare. Besides, after all, there's lots of time to think about it. Here we're only half through Lent term, and the races don't begin till the end of Easter term."

"It won't do," said Miller, "we must get the crew together this term."

"Well, you and Smith put your heads together and manage it," said the Captain. "I will go down any day, and as often as you like, at two o'clock."

"Let's see," said Miller to Smith, "how many of the old crew have we left?"

"Five, counting Blake," answered Diogenes.

"Counting me! well, that's cool," laughed Blake; "you old tub haunting flute-player, why am I not to be counted?"

"You never will train, you see," said Diogenes.

"Smith is quite right," said Miller; "there's no counting on you, Blake. Now, be a good fellow, and promise to be regular this year."

"I'll promise to do my work in a race, which is more than some of your best-trained men will do," said Blake, rather piqued.

"Well you know what I think on the subject," said Miller; "but who have we got for the other three places?"

"There's Drysdale would do," said Diogenes; "I hear he was a capital oar at Eton; and so, though I don't know him, I managed to get him once down last term. He would do famously for No.2, or No.3 if he would pull."

"Do you think he will, Blake? You know him, I suppose," said

Miller.

"Yes, I know him well enough," said Blake; and, shrugging his shoulders, added, "I don't think you'll get him to train much."

"Well, we must try," said Miller. "Now, who else is there?"

Smith went through four or five names, at each of which Miller shook his head.

"Any promising freshmen?" said he at last.

"None better than Brown here," said Smith. "I think he'll do well if he will only work, and stand being coached."

"Have you ever pulled much?" said Miller.

"No," said Tom, "never till this last month-since I've been up here."

"All the better," said Miller; "now, Captain, you hear; we may probably have to go in with three new hands; they must get into your stroke this term, or we shall be nowhere."

"Very well," said the Captain; "I'll give from two till five any days you like."

"And now let's go and have one pool," said Blake, getting up.

"Come, Captain, just one little pool after all this business."

Diogenes insisted on staying to play his flute; Miller was engaged; but the Captain, with a little coaxing, was led away by Blake, and good-naturedly asked Tom to accompany them, when he saw that he was looking as if he would like it. So the three went off to the billiard-rooms; Tom in such spirits at the chance of being tried in the crew, that he hardly noticed the exceedingly bad exchange which he had involuntarily made of his new cap and gown for a third-year cap with the board broken into several pieces, and a fusty old gown which had been about college probably for ten generations. Under-graduate morality in the matter of caps and gowns seems to be founded on the celebrated maxim, "Propriete c'est le vol."

They found the St. Ambrose pool-room full of the fast set; and Tom enjoyed his game much, though his three lives were soon disposed of. The Captain and Blake were the last lives on the board, and divided the pool at Blake's suggestion. He had scarcely nerve for playing out a single handed match with such an iron-nerved, steady piece of humanity as the Captain, though he was the more brilliant player of the two. The party then broke up, and Tom returned to his rooms; and, when he was by himself again, his thoughts recurred to Hardy. How odd, he thought, that they never mentioned him for the boat! Could he have done anything to be ashamed of? How was it that nobody seemed to know him, and he to know nobody.

Most readers, I doubt not, will think our hero very green for being puzzled at so simple a matter; and, no doubt, the steps in the social scale in England are very clearly marked out, and we all come to the appreciation of the gradations sooner or later. But our hero's previous education must be taken into consideration. He had not been instructed at home to worship mere conventional distinctions of rank or wealth, and had gone to a school which was not frequented by persons of rank, and where no one knew whether a boy was heir to a principality, or would have to fight his own way in the world. So he was rather taken by surprise at what he found to be the state of things at St. Ambrose's and didn't easily realize it.

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