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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 22658

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

It was not long before Tom had effected his object in part. That is to say, he had caught Hardy several times in the Quadrangle coming out of Lecture Hall, or Chapel, and had fastened himself upon him; often walking with him even up to the door of his rooms. But there matters ended. Hardy was very civil and gentlemanly; he even seemed pleased with the volunteered companionship; but there was undoubtedly a coolness about him which Tom could not make out. But, as he only liked Hardy more, the more he saw of him, he very soon made up his mind to break ground himself, and to make a dash at any rate for something more than a mere speaking acquaintance.

One evening he had as usual walked from Hall with Hardy up to his door. They stopped a moment talking, and then Hardy, half-opening the door, said, "Well, goodnight; perhaps we shall meet on the river to-morrow," and was going in, when Tom, looking him in the face, blurted out, "I say, Hardy, I wish you'd let me come in and sit with you a bit."

"I never ask a man of our college into my rooms," answered the other, "but come in by all means if you like;" and so they entered.

The room was the worst, both in situation and furniture, which Tom had yet seen. It was on the ground floor, with only one window, which looked out into a back yard, where were the offices of the college. All day, and up to nine o'clock at night, the yard and offices were filled with scouts; boys cleaning boots and knives; bed-makers emptying slops and tattling scandal; scullions peeling potatoes and listening; and the butchers' and green-grocers' men who supply the college, and loitering about to gossip and get a taste of the college ale before going about their business. The room was large, but low and close, and the floor uneven. The furniture did not add to the cheerfulness of the apartment. It consisted of one large table in the middle, covered with an old chequered table-cloth, and an Oxford table near the window, on which lay half-a-dozen books with writing materials. A couple of plain Windsor chairs occupied the two sides of the fireplace, and half-a-dozen common wooden chairs stood against the opposite wall, three on each side of a pretty-well-filled book-case; while an old rickety sofa, covered with soiled chintz, leaned against the wall which fronted the window, as if to rest its lame leg. The carpet and rug were dingy, and decidedly the worse for wear; and the college had evidently neglected to paper the room or whitewash the ceiling for several generations. On the mantle-piece reposed a few long clay pipes, and a brown earthenware receptacle for tobacco, together with a japanned tin case, shaped like a figure of eight, the use of which puzzled Tom exceedingly. One modestly framed drawing of a 10-gun brig hung above, and at the side of the fireplace a sword and belt. All this Tom had time to remark by the light of the fire, which was burning brightly, while his host produced a couple of brass candlesticks from his cupboard and lighted up, and drew the curtain before his window. Then Tom instinctively left off taking his notes, for fear of hurting the other's feelings (just as he would have gone on doing, and making remarks on everything, had the rooms been models of taste and comfort), and throwing his cap and gown on the sofa, sat down on one of the Windsor chairs.

"What a jolly chair," said he; "where do you get them? I should like to buy one."

"Yes, they're comfortable enough," said Hardy, "but the reason I have them is, that they're the cheapest armchair one can get. I like an arm-chair, and can't afford to have any other than these."

Tom dropped the subject of the chairs at once, following his instinct again, which, sad to say, was already teaching him that poverty is a disgrace to a Briton, and that, until you know a man thoroughly, you must always seem to assume that he is the owner of unlimited ready money. Somehow or another, he began to feel embarrassed, and couldn't think of anything to say, as his host took down the pipes and tobacco from the mantle-piece, and placed them on the table. However, anything was better than silence, so he began again.

"Very good-sized rooms yours seem," said he, taking up a pipe mechanically.

"Big enough, for the matter of that," answered the other, "but very dark and noisy in the day-time."

"So I should think," said Tom; "do you know, I'd sooner, now, have my freshman's rooms up in the garrets. I wonder you don't change."

"I get these for nothing," said his host, putting his long clay to the candle, and puffing out volumes of smoke. Tom felt more and more unequal to the situation, and filled his pipe in silence. The first whiff made him cough as he wasn't used to the fragrant weed in this shape.

"I'm afraid you don't smoke tobacco," said his host from behind his own cloud; "shall I go out and fetch you a cigar? I don't smoke them myself; I can't afford it."

"No, thank you," said Tom blushing for shame as if he had come there only to insult his host, and wishing himself heartily out of it, "I've got my case here; and the fact is I will smoke a cigar if you'll allow me, for I'm not up to pipes yet. I wish you'd take some," he went on, emptying his cigars on to the table.

"Thank'ee," replied his host, "I prefer a pipe. And now what will you have to drink? I don't keep wine but I can get a bottle of anything you like from the common room. That's one of our privileges,"-he gave a grim chuckle as he emphasised the word "our".

"Who on earth are we?" thought Tom "servitors I suppose," for he knew already that undergraduates in general could not get wine from the college cellars.

"I don't care a straw about wine," said he, feeling very hot about the ears; "a glass of beer, or anything you have here-or tea."

"Well, I can give you a pretty good glass of whiskey," said his host, going to the cupboard, and producing a black bottle, two tumblers of different sizes, some little wooden toddy ladles, and sugar in an old cracked glass.

Tom vowed that, if there was one thing in the world he liked more than another, it was whiskey; and began measuring out the liquor carefully into his tumbler, and rolling it round between his eyes and the candle and smelling it, to show what a treat it was to him; while his host put the kettle on the fire, to ascertain that it had quit boiling, and then, as it spluttered and fizzed, filled up the two tumblers, and restored it to its place on the hob.

Tom swallowed some of the mixture, which nearly made him cough again-for, though it was very good, it was also very potent. However, by an effort he managed to swallow his cough; he would about as soon have lost a little finger as let it out. Then, to his great relief, his host took the pipe from his lips, and inquired, "How do you like Oxford?"

"I hardly know yet," said Tom; "the first few days I was delighted with going about and seeing the buildings, and finding out who had lived in each of the old colleges, and pottering about in the Bodleian, and fancying I should like to be a great scholar. Then I met several old school fellows going about, who are up at other colleges, and went to their rooms and talked over old times. But none of my very intimate friends are up yet, and unless you care very much about a man already, you don't seem likely to get intimate with him up here, unless he is at your own college."

He paused, as if expecting an answer.

"I daresay not," said Hardy, "but I never was at a public school, unluckily, and so am no judge."

"Well, then, as to the college life," went on Tom, "it's all very well as far as it goes. There's plenty of liberty and good food. And the men seem nice fellows-many of them, at least, so far as I can judge. But I can't say that I like it as much as I liked our school life."

"I don't understand," said Hardy. "Why not?"

"Oh! I hardly know," said Tom laughing; "I don't seem as if I had anything to do here; that's one reason, I think. And then, you see, at Rugby I was rather a great man. There one had a share in the ruling of 300 boys, and a good deal of responsibility; but here one has only just to take care of oneself, and keep out of scrapes; and that's what I never could do. What do you think a fellow ought to do, now, up here?"

"Oh I don't see much difficulty in that," said his host, smiling; "get up your lectures well, to begin with."

"But my lectures are a farce," said Tom; "I've done all the books over and over again. They don't take me an hour a day to get up."

"Well, then, set to work reading something regularly-reading for your degree, for instance."

"Oh, hang it! I can't look so far forward as that; I shan't be going up for three years."

"You can't begin too early. You might go and talk to your college-tutor about it."

"So I did," said Tom; "at least I meant to do it. For he asked me and two other freshmen to breakfast the other morning, and I was going to open out to him; but when I got there I was quite shut up. He never looked one of us in the face, and talked in set sentences, and was cold, and formal, and condescending. The only bit of advice he gave us was to have nothing to do with boating-just the one thing which I feel a real interest in. I couldn't get out a word of what I wanted to say."

"It is unlucky, certainly, that our present tutors take so little interest in anything which the men care about. But it is more from shyness than anything else, that manner which you noticed. You may be sure that he was more wretched and embarrassed than any of you."

"Well, but now I should really like to know what you did yourself," said Tom; "you are the only man of much older standing than myself whom I know at all yet-I mean I don't know anybody else well enough to talk about this sort of thing to them. What did you do, now, besides learning to pull, in your first year?"

"I had learnt to pull before I came up here," said Hardy.

"I really hardly remember what I did besides read. You see, I came up with a definite purpose of reading. My father was very anxious that I should become a good scholar. Then my position in the college and my poverty naturally kept me out of the many things which other men do."

Tom flushed again at the ugly word, but not so much as at first. Hardy couldn't mind the subject, or he would never be forcing it up at every turn, he thought.

"You wouldn't think it," he began again, harping on the same string, "but I can hardly tell you how I miss the sort of responsibility I was talking to you about. I have no doubt I shall get the vacuum filled up before long, but for the life of me I can't see how yet."

"You will be a very lucky fellow if you don't find it quite as much as you can do to keep yourself in order up here. It is about the toughest part of a man's life, I do believe, the time he has spent here. My university life has been so different altogether from what yours will be, that my experience isn't likely to benefit you."

"I wish you would try me, though," said Tom; "you don't know what a teachable sort of a fellow I am, if any body will take me the right way. You taught me to scull, you know; or at least put me in a way to learn. But sculling, and rowing, and cricket, and all the rest of it, with suc

h reading as I am likely to do, won't be enough. I feel sure of that already.

"I don't think it will," said Hardy. "No amount of physical or mental work will fill the vacuum you were talking of just now. It is the empty house swept and garnished which the boy might have had glimpses of, but the man finds yawning within him, which must be filled somehow. It's a pretty good three years' work to learn how to keep the devils out of it, more or less; by the time you take your degree. At least I have found it so."

Hardy rose and took a turn or two up and down his room. He was astonished at finding himself talking so unreservedly to one of whom he knew so little, and half-wished the words recalled. He lived much alone, and thought himself morbid and too self-conscious; why should he be filling a youngster's head with puzzles? How did he know that they were thinking of the same thing?

But the spoken word cannot be recalled; it must go on its way for good or evil; and this one set the hearer staring into the ashes, and putting many things together in his head.

It was some minutes before he broke silence, but at last he gathered up his thoughts, and said, "Well, I hope I sha'n't shirk when the time comes. You don't think a fellow need shut himself up, though? I'm sure I shouldn't be any the better for that."

"No, I don't think you would," said Hardy.

"Because, you see," Tom went on, waxing bolder and more confidential, "If I were to take to moping by myself, I shouldn't read as you or any sensible fellow would do; I know that well enough. I should just begin, sitting with my legs upon the mantel-piece, and looking into my own inside. I see you are laughing, but you know what mean, don't you now?"

"Yes; staring into the vacuum you were talking of just now; it all comes back to that," said Hardy.

"Well, perhaps it does," said Tom; "and I don't believe it does a fellow a bit of good to be thinking about himself and his own doings."

"Only he can't help himself," said Hardy. "Let him throw himself as he will into all that is going on up here, after all he must be alone for a great part of his time-all night at any rate-and when he gets his oak sported, it's all up with him. He must be looking more or less into his own inside, as you call it."

"Then I hope he won't find it as ugly a business as I do. If he does, I'm sure he can't be worse employed."

"I don't know that," said Hardy; "he can't learn anything worth learning in any other way."

"Oh, I like that!" said Tom; "it's worth learning how to play tennis, and how to speak the truth. You can't learn either by thinking of yourself ever so much."

"You must know the truth before you can speak it," said Hardy.

"So you always do in plenty of time."

"How?" said Hardy.

"Oh, I don't know," said Tom; "by a sort of instinct I suppose. I never in my life felt any doubt about what I ought to say or do; did you?"

"Well, yours is a good, comfortable, working belief at any rate," said Hardy, smiling; "and I should advise you to hold on to it as long as you can."

"But you don't think I can very long, eh?"

"No: but men are very different. There's no saying. If you were going to get out of the self-dissecting business altogether though, why should you have brought the subject up at all to-night? It looks awkward for you, doesn't it?"

Tom began to feel rather forlorn at this suggestion, and probably betrayed it in his face, for Hardy changed the subject suddenly.

"How do you get on in the boat? I saw you going down to-day, and thought the time much better."

Tom felt greatly relieved, as he was beginning to find himself in rather deep water; so he rushed into boating with great zest, and the two chatted on very pleasantly on that and other matters.

The college clock struck during a pause in their talk, and Tom looked at his watch.

"Eight o'clock I declare," he said; "why I must have been here more than two hours. I'm afraid, now, you have been wanting to work, and I have kept you from it with my talk."

"No, it's Saturday night. Besides, I don't get much society that I care about, and so I enjoy it all the more. Won't you stop and have some tea?"

Tom gladly consented, and his host produced a somewhat dilapidated set of crockery, and proceeded to brew the drink least appreciated at St. Ambrose's. Tom watched him in silence, much excercised in his mind as to what manner of man he had fallen upon; very much astonished at himself for having opened out so freely, and feeling a desire to know more about Hardy, not unmixed with a sort of nervousness as to how he was to accomplish it.

When Hardy sat down again and began pouring out the tea, curiosity overcame, and he opened with-

"So you read nights, after Hall?

"Yes, for two or three hours; longer, when I am in a good humor."

"What, all by yourself?"

"Generally; but once or twice a week Grey comes in to compare notes. Do you know him?"

"No, at least he hasn't called on me, I have just spoken to him."

"He is a quiet fellow, and I daresay doesn't call on any man unless he knew something of him before."

"Don't you?"

"Never," said Hardy, shortly; and added after a short pause, "very few men would thank me if I did; most would think it impertinent, and I'm too proud to risk that."

Tom was on the point of asking why; but the uncomfortable feeling which he had nearly lost came back on him.

"I suppose one very soon gets tired of the wine and supper party life, though I own I find it pleasant enough now."

"I have never been tired," said Hardy; "servitors are not troubled with that sort of a thing. If they were I wouldn't go unless I could return them, and that I can't afford."

"There he goes again," thought Tom; "why will he be throwing that old story in my face over and over again? He can't think I care about his poverty; I won't change the subject this time, at any rate." And so he said:

"You don't mean to say it makes any real difference to a man in society up here, whether he is poor or rich; I mean, of course, if he is a gentleman and a good fellow?"

"Yes, it does-the very greatest possible. But don't take my word for it. Keep your eyes open and judge for yourself; I daresay I'm prejudiced on the subject."

"Well, I shan't believe it if I can help it," said Tom; "you know, you said just now that you never called on any one. Perhaps you don't give men a fair chance. They might be glad to know you if you would let them, and may think it's your fault that they don't."

"Very possible," said Hardy; "I tell you not to take my word for it."

"It upsets all one's ideas so," went on Tom; "why Oxford ought to be the place in England where money should count for nothing. Surely, now, such a man as Jervis, our captain, has more influence than all the rich men in the college put together, and is more looked up to?"

"He's one of a thousand," said Hardy; "handsome, strong, good-tempered, clever, and up to everything. Besides, he isn't a poor man; and mind, I don't say that if he were he wouldn't be where he is. I am speaking of the rule, and not of the exceptions."

Here Hardy's scout came in to say that the Dean wanted to speak to him. So he put on his cap and gown, and Tom rose also.

"Well, I'm sorry to turn you out," said Hardy; "and I'm afraid I've been very surly and made you very uncomfortable. You won't come back again in a hurry."

"Indeed I will though, if you will let me," said Tom; "I have enjoyed my evening immensely."

"Then come whenever you like," said Hardy.

"But I am afraid of interfering with your reading," said Tom.

"Oh, you needn't mind that, I have plenty of time on my hands; besides, one can't read all night, and from eight till ten you'll find me generally idle."

"Then you'll see me often enough. But promise, now, to turn me out whenever I am in the way."

"Very well," said Hardy, laughing; and so they parted for the time.

Some twenty minutes afterwards Hardy returned to his room after his interview with the Dean, who merely wanted to speak to him about some matter of college business.

He flung his cap and gown on the sofa, and began to walk up and down his room, at first hurriedly, but soon with his usual regular tramp. However expressive a man's face may be, and however well you may know it, it is simply nonsense to say that you can tell what he is thinking about by looking at it, as many of us are apt to boast. Still more absurd would it be to expect readers to know what Hardy is thinking about, when they have never had the advantage of seeing his face even in a photograph. Wherefore, it would seem that the author is bound on such occasions to put his readers on equal vantage ground with himself, and not only tell what a man does, but, so far as may be, what he is thinking about also.

His first thought, then, was one of pleasure at having been sought by one who seemed to be just the sort of friend he would like to have. He contrasted our hero with the few men with whom he had generally lived, and for some of whom he had a high esteem-whose only idea of exercise was a two hour constitutional walk in the afternoons, and whose life was chiefly spent over books and behind sported oaks-and felt that this was more of a man after his own heart. Then came doubts whether his new friend would draw back when he had been up a little longer, and knew more of the place. At any rate he had said and done nothing to tempt him; "if he pushes the acquaintance-and I think he will-it will be because he likes me for myself. And I can do him good too, I feel sure," he went on, as he ran over rapidly his own life for the last three years. "Perhaps he won't flounder into all the sloughs which I have had to drag through; he will get too much of the healthy, active life up here for that, which I have never had; but some of them he must get into. All the companionship of boating and cricketing, and wine-parties, and supper parties, and all the reading in the world won't keep him from many a long hour of mawkishness, and discontent, and emptiness of heart; he feels that already himself. Am I sure of that, though? I may be only reading myself into him. At any rate, why should I have helped to trouble him before the time? Was that a friend's part? Well, he must face it, and the sooner the better perhaps. At any rate it is done. But what a blessed thing if one can only help a youngster like this to fight his own way through the cold clammy atmosphere which is always hanging over him, ready to settle down on him-can help to keep some living faith in him, that the world, Oxford and all, isn't a respectable piece of machinery set going some centuries back! Ah! It's an awful business, that temptation to believe, or think you believe, in a dead God. It has nearly broken my back a score of times. What are all the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil to this? It includes them all. Well, I believe I can help him, and, please God, I will, if he will only let me; and the very sight of him does me good; so I won't believe we went down the lasher together for nothing."

And so at last Hardy finished his walk, took down a volume of Don Quixote from his shelves, and sat down for an hour's enjoyment before turning in.

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