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   Chapter 7 AN EXPLOSION

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 15587

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


Our hero soon began to feel that he was contracting his first college friendship. The great, strong, badly-dressed, badly-appointed servitor, who seemed almost at the same time utterly reckless of, and nervously alive to, the opinion of all around him, with his bursts of womanly tenderness and Berserker rage, alternating like storms and sunshine of a July day on a high moorland, his keen sense of humor and appreciation of all the good things of life, the use and enjoyment of which he was so steadily denying himself from high principle, had from the first seized powerfully on all Tom's sympathies, and was daily gaining more hold upon him.

Blessed is the man who has the gift of making friends; for it is one of God's best gifts. It involves many things, but above all, the power of going out of oneself, and seeing and appreciating whatever is noble and living in another man.

But even to him who has the gift, it is often a great puzzle to find out whether a man is really a friend or not. The following is recommended as a test in the case of any man about whom you are not quite sure; especially if he should happen to have more of this world's goods, either in the shape of talents, rank or money, or what not, than you.

Fancy the man stripped stark naked of every thing in the world, except an old pair of trousers and a shirt, for decency's sake, without even a name to him, and dropped down in the middle of Holborn or Piccadilly, Would you go up to him then and there, and lead him out from amongst the cabs and omnibuses, and take him to your own home and feed him and clothe him, and stand by him against all the world, to your last sovereign, and your last leg of mutton? If you wouldn't do this you have no right to call him by the sacred name of friend. If you would, the odds are that he would do the same by you, and you may count yourself a rich man. For, probably were friendship expressible by, or convertible into, current coin of the realm, one such friend would be worth to a man, at least 100,000L. How many millionaires are there in England? I can't even guess; but more by a good many, I fear, than there are men who have ten real friends. But friendship is not expressible or convertible. It is more precious than wisdom; and wisdom "cannot be gotten for gold, nor shall rubies be mentioned in comparison thereof." Not all the riches that ever came out of earth and sea are worth the assurance of one such real abiding friendship in your heart of hearts.

But for the worth of a friendship commonly so called-meaning thereby a sentiment founded on the good dinners, good stories, opera stalls, and days' hooting you have gotten or hope to get out of a man, the snug things in his gift, and his powers of procuring enjoyment of one kind or another to miserable body or intellect-why, such a friendship as that is to be appraised easily enough, if you find it worth your while; but you will have to pay your pound of flesh for it one way or another-you may take your oath of that. If you follow my advice, you will take a 10L note down, and retire to your crust of bread and liberty.

Tom was rapidly falling into friendship with Hardy. He was not bound hand and foot and carried away captive yet, but he was already getting deep in the toils.

One evening he found himself as usual at Hardy's door about eight o'clock. The oak was open, but he got no answer when he knocked at the inner door. Nevertheless he entered, having quite got over all shyness or ceremony by this time. The room was empty, but two tumblers and the black bottle stood on the table, and the kettle was hissing away on the hob. "Ah," thought Tom, "he expects me, I see;" so he turned his back to the fire and made himself at home. A quarter of an hour passed, and still Hardy did not return. "Never knew him out so long before at this time of night," thought Tom. "Perhaps he's at some party. I hope so. It would do him a good deal of good; and I know he might go out if he liked. Next term, see if I won't make him more sociable. It's a stupid custom that freshmen don't give parties in their first term, or I'd do it at once. Why won't he be more sociable? No, after all sociable isn't the word; he's a very sociable fellow at bottom. What in the world is it that he wants?"

And so Tom balanced himself on the two hind legs of one of the Windsor chairs, and betook himself to pondering what it was exactly which ought to be added to Hardy to make him an unexceptional object of hero-worship; when the man himself came suddenly into the room, slamming his oak behind him, and casting his cap and gown fiercely on to the sofa before he noticed our hero.

Tom jumped up at once. "My dear fellow, what's the matter?" he said; "I'm sorry I came in; shall I go?"

"No-don't go-sit down," said Hardy, abruptly; and then began to smoke fast without saying another word.

Tom waited a few minutes watching for him, and then broke silence again.-

"I am sure something is the matter, Hardy; you look dreadfully put out-what is it?"

"What is it?" said Hardy, bitterly; "Oh, nothing at all-nothing at all; a gentle lesson to servitors as to the duties of their position; not pleasant, perhaps, for a youngster to swallow; but I ought to be used to such things at any rate by this time. I beg your pardon for seeming put out."

"Do tell me what it is," said Tom. "I'm sure I am very sorry for anything which annoys you."

"I believe you are," said Hardy, looking at him, "and I'm much obliged to you for it. What do you think of that fellow Chanter's offering Smith, the junior servitor, a boy just come up, a bribe of ten pounds to prick him in at chapel when he isn't there?"

"The dirty blackguard," said Tom; "by Jove he ought to be cut. He will be cut, won't he? You don't mean that he really did offer him the money?"

"I do," said Hardy, "and the poor little fellow came here after hall to ask me what he should do with tears in his eyes."

"Chanter ought to be horsewhipped in quad," said Tom.

"I will go and call on Smith directly. What did you do?"

"Why, as soon as I could master myself enough not to lay hands on him," said Hardy, "I went across to his rooms where he was entertaining a select party, and just gave him his choice between writing an abject apology then and there to my dictation, or having the whole business laid before the principal to-morrow morning. He chose the former alternative, and I made him write such a letter as I don't think he will forget in a hurry."

"That's good," said Tom; "but he ought to have been horsewhipped too. It makes one's fingers itch to think of it. However, Smith's all right now."

"All right!" said Hardy, bitterly. "I don't know what you call 'all right.' Probably the boy's self-respect is hurt for life. You can't salve over this sort of thing with an apology-plaster."

"Well, I hope it isn't so bad as that," said Tom.

"Wait till you've tried it yourself," said Hardy, "I'll tell you what it is; one or two things of this sort-and I've seen many more than that in my time-sink down into you, and leave marks like a red-hot iron."

"But, Hardy, now, really, did you ever know a bribe offered before?" said Tom.

Hardy thought for a moment. "No," said he, "I can't say that I have; but things as bad, or nearly as bad, often." He paused a minute, and then went on; "I tell you, if it were not for my dear old father, who would break his heart over it, I would cut the whole concern to-morrow. I've been near doing it twenty times, and enlisting in a good regiment."

"Would it be any better there, though?" said Tom, gently, for he felt that he was in a gunpowder magazine.

"Better! yes, it must be better," said Hardy; "at any rate the youngsters there are marchers and fi

ghters; besides, one would be in the ranks and know one's place. Here one is by way of being a gentleman-God save the mark! A young officer, be he never such a fop or profligate, must take his turn at guard, and carry his life in his hand all over the world wherever he is sent, or he has to leave the service. Service!-yes, that's the word; that's what makes every young red-coat respectable, though he mayn't think it. He is serving his Queen, his country-the devil, too, perhaps-very likely-but still the other is some sort. He is bound to it, sworn to it, must do it; more or less. But a youngster up here, with health, strength, and heaps of money-bound to no earthly service, and choosing that of the devil and his own lusts, because some service or other he must have-I want to know where else under the sun you can see such a sight as that?"

Tom mumbled something to the effect that it was by no means necessary that men at Oxford, either rich or poor, need embark in the service which had been alluded to; which remark, however, only seemed to add fuel to the fire. For Hardy now rose from his chair, and began striding up and down the room, his right arm behind his back, the hand gripping his left elbow, his left hand brought round in front close to his body, and holding the bowl of his pipe, from which he was blowing off clouds in puffs like an engine just starting with a heavy train. The attitude was one of a man painfully trying to curb himself. His eyes burnt like coals under his deep brows. The man altogether looked awful, and Tom felt particularly uncomfortable and puzzled. After a turn or two, Hardy burst out again-

"And who are they, I should like to know, these fellows who dare to offer bribes to gentlemen? How do they live? What do they do for themselves or for this University? By heaven, they are ruining themselves body and soul, and making this place, which was meant for the training of learned and brave and righteous Englishmen, a lie and a snare. And who tries to stop them? Here and there a don is doing his work like a man; the rest are either washing their hands of the business, and spending their time in looking after those who don't want looking after, and cramming those who would be better without the cramming, or else standing by, cap in hand, and shouting, 'Oh young men of large fortune and great connexions! You future dispensers of the good things of this Realm, come to our colleges and all shall be made pleasant!' and the shout is taken up by undergraduates, and tradesmen, and horse-dealers, and cricket-cads, and dog-fanciers 'Come to us, and us, and us, and we will be your toadies!' Let them; let them toady and cringe to their precious idols, till they bring this noble old place down about their ears. Down it will come, down it must come, for down it ought to come, if it can find nothing better to worship than rank, money, and intellect. But to live in the place and love it too, and to see all this going on, and groan and writhe under it, and not be able-"

At this point in his speech Hardy came to the turning-point in his march at the farther end of the room, just opposite his crockery cupboard; but, instead of turning as usual, he paused, let go the hold on his left elbow, poised himself for a moment to get a purchase, and then dashed his right fist full against one of the panels. Crash went the slight deal boards, as if struck with a sledge-hammer, and crash went glass and crockery behind. Tom jumped to his feet, in doubt whether an assault on him would not follow, but the fit was over, and Hardy looked round at him with a rueful and deprecating face. For a moment Tom tried to look solemn and heroic, as befitted the occasion; but somehow, the sudden contrast flashed upon him, and sent him off, before he could think about it, into a roar of laughter, ending in a violent fit of coughing; for in his excitement he had swallowed a mouthful of smoke. Hardy, after holding out for a moment, gave in to the humour of the thing, and the appealing look passed into a smile, and the smile into a laugh, as he turned towards his damaged cupboard, and began opening it carefully in a legitimate manner.

"I say, old fellow," said Tom, coming up, "I should think you must find it an expensive amusement. Do you often walk into your cupboard like that?"

"You see, Brown, I am naturally a man of a very quick temper."

"So it seems" said Tom; "but doesn't it hurt your knuckles? I should have something softer put up for me if I were you; your bolster, with a velvet cap on it, or a doctor of divinity's gown, now."

"You be hanged," said Hardy, as he disengaged the last splinter, and gently opened the ill-used cupboard door. "Oh, thunder and turf, look here," he went on, as the state of affairs inside disclosed itself to his view; "how many times have I told that thief George never to put anything on this side of my cupboard! Two tumblers smashed to bits, and I've only four in the world. Lucky we had those two out on the table."

"And here's a great piece out of the sugar-basin, you see," said Tom, holding up the broken article; "and, let me see, one cup and three saucers gone to glory."

"Well, it's lucky it's no worse," said Hardy, peering over his shoulder; "I had a lot of odd saucers, and there's enough left to last my time. Never mind the smash, let's sit down again and be reasonable."

Tom sat down in high good humor. He felt himself more on an equality with his host than he had done before, and even thought he might venture on a little mild expostulation or lecturing. But while he was considering how to improve the occasion Hardy began himself.

"I shouldn't go so furious, Brown, if I didn't care about the place so much. I can't bear to think of it as a sort of learning machine, in which I am to grind for three years to get certain degrees which I want. No-this place, and Cambridge, and our great schools, are the heart of dear old England. Did you ever read Secretary Cook's address to the Vice-Chancellor, Doctors, &c. in 1636-more critical times, perhaps, even than ours? No? Well, listen then;" and he went to his bookcase, took down a book, and read; "'The very truth is, that all wise princes respect the welfare of their estates, and consider that schools and universities are (as in a body) the noble and vital parts, which being vigorous and sound send good blood and active spirits into the veins and arteries, which cause health and strength; or, if feeble or ill-affected, corrupt all the vital parts; whereupon grow diseases, and in the end, death itself.' A low standard up here for ten years may corrupt half the parishes in the kingdom."

"That's true," said Tom, "but-"

"Yes; and so one has a right to be jealous for Oxford. Every

Englishman ought to be."

"But I really think, Hardy, that you're unreasonable," said Tom, who had no mind to be done out of his chance of lecturing his host.

"I am very quick-tempered," said Hardy, "as I told you just now."

"But you're not fair on the fast set up here. They can't help being rich men, after all."

"No; so one oughtn't to expect them to be going through the eyes of needles, I suppose. But do you mean to say you ever heard of a more dirty, blackguard business than this?" said Hardy; "he ought to be expelled the University."

"I admit that," said Tom; "but it was only one of them, you know. I don't believe there's another man in the set who would have done it."

"Well, I hope not," said Hardy; "I may be hard on them-as you say, they can't help being rich. But, now, I don't want you to think me a violent one-sided fanatic; shall I tell you some of my experiences up here-some passages from the life of a servitor?"

"Do," said Tom, "I should like nothing so well."

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