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   Chapter 16 THE STORM RAGES

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 21781

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


Hardy was early in the chapel the next morning. It was his week for pricking in. Every man who entered-from the early men who strolled in quietly while the bell was still ringing, to the hurrying, half-dressed loiterers who crushed in as the porter was closing the doors, and disturbed the congregation in the middle of the confession-gave him a turn (as the expressive phrase is), and every turn only ended in disappointment. He put by his list at last, when the doors were fairly shut, with a sigh. He had half expected to see Tom come into morning chapel with a face from which he might have gathered hope that his friend had taken the right path. But Tom did not come at all, and Hardy felt it was a bad sign.

They did not meet till the evening, at the river, when the boat went down for a steady pull, and then Hardy saw at once that all was going wrong. Neither spoke to or looked at the other. Hardy expected some one to remark it, but nobody did. After the pull they walked up, and Tom as usual led the way, as if nothing had happened, into "The Choughs." Hardy paused for a moment, and then went in too, and stayed till the rest of the crew left. Tom deliberately stayed after them all. Hardy turned for a moment as he was leaving the bar, and saw him settling himself down in his chair with an air of defiance, meant evidently for him, which would have made most men angry. He was irritated for a moment, and then was filled with roth for the poor wrong-headed youngster who was heaping up coals of fire for his own head. In his momentary anger Hardy said to himself, "Well, I have done what I can; now he must go his own way;" but such a thought was soon kicked in disgrace from his noble and well-disciplined mind. He resolved, that, let it cost what it might in the shape of loss of time and trial of temper, he would leave no stone unturned, and spare no pains, to deliver his friend of yesterday from the slough into which he was plunging. How he might best work for this end occupied his thoughts as he walked towards college.

Tom sat on at "The Choughs," glorifying himself in the thought that now, at any rate, he had shown Hardy that he wasn't to be dragooned into doing or not doing anything. He had had a bad time of it all day, and his good angel had fought hard for victory; but self-will was too strong for the time. When he stayed behind the rest, it was more out of bravado than from any defined purpose of pursuing what he tried to persuade himself was an innocent flirtation. When he left the house some hours after he was deeper in the toils than ever, and dark clouds were gathering over his heart. From that time he was an altered man, and altering as rapidly for the worse in body as in mind. Hardy saw the change in both, and groaned over it in secret. Miller's quick eye detected the bodily change. After the next race he drew Tom aside, and said,-

"Why, Brown, what's the matter? What have you been about? You're breaking down. Hold on, man; there's only one more night."

"Never fear," said Tom, proudly, "I shall last it out."

And in the last race he did his work again, though it cost him more than all the preceding ones put together, and when he got out of the boat he could scarcely walk or see. He felt a fierce kind of joy in his own distress, and wished that there were more races to come. But Miller, as he walked up arm-in-arm with the Captain, took a different view of the subject.

"Well, it's all right, you see," said the Captain; "but we're not a boat's length better than Oriel over the course after all. How was it we bumped them? If anything, they drew a-little on us to-night."

"Ay, half a boat's length, I should say," answered Miller. "I'm uncommonly glad it's over; Brown is going all to pieces; he wouldn't stand another race, and we haven't a man to put in his place."

"It's odd, too," said the Captain; "I put him down as a laster, and he has trained well. Perhaps he has overdone it a little. However, it don't matter now."

So the races were over; and that night a great supper was held in St. Ambrose Hall, to which were bidden, and came, the crews of all the boats from Exeter upwards. The Dean, with many misgivings and cautions, had allowed the hall to be used, on pressure from Miller and Jervis. Miller was a bachelor and had taken a good degree, and Jervis bore a high character and was expected to do well in the schools. So the poor Dean gave in to them, extracting many promises in exchange for his permission, and flitted uneasily about all the evening in his cap and gown, instead of working on at his edition of the Fathers, which occupied every minute of his leisure, and was making an old man of him before his time.

From eight to eleven the fine old pointed windows of St. Ambrose Hall blazed with light, and the choruses of songs, and the cheers which followed the short intervals of silence which the speeches made, rang out over the quadrangles, and made the poor Dean amble about in a state of nervous bewilderment. Inside there was hearty feasting, such as had not been seen there, for aught I know, since the day when the king came back to "enjoy his own again." The one old cup, relic of the Middle Ages, which had survived the civil wars,-St. Ambrose's had been a right loyal college, and the plate had gone without a murmur into Charles the First's war-chest,-went round and round; and rival crews pledged one another out of it, and the massive tankards of a later day, in all good faith and good fellowship. Mailed knights, grave bishops, royal persons of either sex, and "other our benefactors," looked down on the scene from their heavy gilded frames, and, let us hope, not unkindly. All passed off well and quietly; the out-college men were gone, the lights were out, and the butler had locked the hall door by a quarter past eleven, and the Dean returned in peace to his own rooms.

Had Tom been told a week before that he would not have enjoyed that night, that it would not have been amongst the happiest and proudest of his life, he would have set his informer down as a madman. As it was, he never once rose to the spirit of the feast, and wished it all over a dozen times. He deserved not to enjoy it; but not so Hardy, who was nevertheless almost as much out of tune as Tom; though the University coxswain had singled him out, named him in his speech, sat by him and talked to him for a quarter of an hour, and asked him to go to the Henley and Thames regattas in the Oxford crew.

The next evening, as usual, Tom found himself at "The Choughs" with half a dozen others. Patty was in the bar by herself, looking prettier than ever. One by one the rest of the men dropped off, the last saying, "Are you coming, Brown?" and being answered in the negative.

He sat still, watching Patty as she flitted about, washing up the ale glasses and putting them on their shelves, and getting out her work basket; and then she came and sat down in her aunt's chair opposite him, and began stitching away demurely at an apron she was making. Then he broke silence,-

"Where's your aunt to-night, Patty?"

"Oh, she has gone away for a few days, for a visit to some friends."

"You and I will keep house, then, together; you shall teach me all the tricks of the trade. I shall make a famous barman, don't you think?"

"You must learn to behave better, then. But I promised aunt to shut up at nine; so you must go when it strikes. Now promise me you will go."

"Go at nine! what, in half an hour? The first evening I have ever had a chance of spending alone with you; do you think it likely?" and he looked into her eyes. She turned away with a slight shiver, and a deep blush.

His nervous system had been so unusually excited in the last few days, that he seemed to know everything that was passing in her mind. He took her hand. "Why, Patty, you're not afraid of me, surely?" he said, gently.

"No, not when you're like you are now. But you frightened me just this minute. I never saw you look so before. Has anything happened to you?"

"No, nothing. Now then, we're going to have a jolly evening, and play Darby and Joan together," he said, turning away, and going to the bar window; "shall I shut up, Patty?"

"No, it isn't nine yet; somebody may come in."

"That's just why I mean to put the shutters up; I don't want anybody."

"Yes, but I do, though. Now I declare, Mr. Brown, if you go on shutting up, I'll run into the kitchen and sit with Dick."

"Why will you call me 'Mr. Brown'?"

"Why, what should I call you?"

"Tom, of course."

"Oh, I never! one would think you was my brother," said Patty, looking up with a pretty pertness which she had a most bewitching way of putting on. Tom's rejoinder, and the little squabble which they had afterward about where her work-table should stand, and other such matters, may be passed over. At last he was brought to reason, and to anchor opposite his enchantress, the work-table between them; and he sat leaning back in his chair and watching her, as she stitched away without ever lifting her eyes. He was in no hurry to break the silence. The position was particularly fascinating to him, for he had scarcely ever yet had a good look at her before, without fear of attracting attention, or being interrupted. At last he roused himself.

"Any of our men been here to-day, Patty?" he said, sitting up.

"There now, I've won," she laughed; "I said to myself I wouldn't speak first, and I haven't. What a time you were. I thought you would never begin."

"You're a little goose! Now I begin then; who've been here to-day?"

"Of your college? let me see;" and she looked away across to the bar window, pricking her needle into the table. "There was Mr. Drysdale and some others called for a glass of ale as they passed, going out driving. Then there was Mr. Smith and them from the boats about four, and that ugly one-I can't mind his name-"

"What, Hardy?"

"Yes, that's it; he was here about half-past six, and-"

"What, Hardy here after hall?" interrupted Tom, utterly astonished.

"Yes, after your dinner up at college. He's been here two or three times lately."

"The deuce he has!"

"Yes, and he talks so pleasant to aunt, too. I'm sure he is a very nice gentleman, after all. He sat and talked tonight for half an hour, I should think."

"What did he talk about?" said Tom, with a sneer.

"Oh, he asked me whether I had a mother, and where I came from, and all about my bringing up, and made me feel quite pleasant. He is so nice and quiet and respectful, not like most of you. I'm going to like him very much, as you told me."

"I don't tell you so now."

"But you did say he was your great friend."

"Well, he isn't that now."

"What, have you quarreled?"

"Yes."

"Dear; dear; how odd you gentlemen are!"

"Why, it isn't a very odd thing for men

to quarrel, is it?"

"No, not in the public room. They're always quarreling there, over their drink and the bagatelle-board; and Dick has to turn them out. But gentlemen ought to know better."

"They don't, you see, Patty."

"But what did you quarrel about?"

"Guess."

"How can I guess? What was it about?"

"About you."

"About me!" she said, looking up from her work in wonder. "How could you quarrel about me?"

"Well, I'll tell you; he said I had no right to come here. You won't like him after that, will you Patty?"

"I don't know, I'm sure," said Patty, going on with her work, and looking troubled.

They sat still for some minutes. Evil thoughts crowded into Tom's head. He was in the humor for thinking evil thoughts, and, putting the worst construction on Hardy's visits, fancied he came there as his rival. He did not trust himself to speak till he had mastered his precious discovery, and put it away in the back of his heart, and weighed it down there with a good covering of hatred and revenge, to be brought out as occasion should serve. He was plunging down rapidly enough now; but he had new motives for making the most of his time, and never played his cards better or made more progress. When a man sits down to such a game, the devil will take good care he sha'n't want cunning or strength. It was ten o'clock instead of nine before he left, which he did with a feeling of triumph. Poor Patty remained behind, and shut up the bar, her heart in a flutter, and her hands shaking, while Dick was locking the front door. She hardly knew whether to laugh or cry; she felt the change which had come over him, and was half fascinated and half repelled by it.

Tom walked quickly back to college, in a mood which I do not care to describe. The only one of his thoughts which my readers need be troubled with, put itself into some such words as these in his head:-"So, it's Abingdon fair next Thursday, and she has half-promised to go with me. I know I can make it certain. Who'll be going besides? Drysdale, I'll be bound. I'll go and see him."

On entering college he went straight to Drysdale's rooms, and drank deeply, and played high into the short hours of the night, but found no opportunity of speaking.

Deeper and deeper yet for the next few days, downwards and ever faster downwards he plunged, the light getting fainter and ever fainter above his head. Little good can come of dwelling on those days. He left off pulling, shunned his old friends, and lived with the very worst men he knew in college, who were ready enough to let him share all their brutal orgies.

Drysdale, who was often present, wondered at the change, which he saw plainly enough. He was sorry for it in his way, but it was no business of his. He began to think that Brown was a good enough fellow before, but would make a devilish disagreeable one if he was going to turn fast man.

At "The Choughs" all went on as if the downward path knew how to make itself smooth. Now that the races were over, and so many other attractions were going on in Oxford, very few men came in to interfere with him. He was scarcely ever away from Patty's side, in the evenings while her aunt was absent, and gained more and more power over her. He might have had some compassion, but that he was spurred on by hearing how Hardy haunted the place now, at times when he could not be there. He felt that there was an influence struggling with his in the girl's mind; he laid it to Hardy's door, and imputed it still more and more to motives as base as his own. But Abingdon fair was coming on Thursday. When he left "The Choughs" on Tuesday night, he had extracted a promise from Patty to accompany him there, and had arranged their place of meeting.

All that remained to be done was to see if Drysdale was going. Somehow he felt a disinclination to go alone with Patty. Drysdale was the only man of those he was now living with to whom he felt the least attraction. In a vague way he clung to him; and though he never faced the thought of what he was about fairly, yet it passed through his mind that even in Drysdale's company he would be safer than if alone. It was all pitiless, blind, wild work, without rudder or compass; the wish that nothing very bad might come out of it all, however, came up in spite of him now and again, and he looked to Drysdale, and longed to become even as he.

Drysdale was going. He was very reserved on the subject, but at last confessed that he was not going alone. Tom persisted. Drysdale was too lazy and careless to keep anything from a man who was bent on knowing it. In the end it was arranged that he should drive Tom out the next afternoon. He did so. They stopped at a small public house some two miles out of Oxford. The cart was put up, and after carefully scanning the neighborhood they walked quickly to the door of a pretty retired cottage. As they entered, Drysdale said,

"By Jove, I thought I caught a glimpse of your friend Hardy at that turn."

"Friend! he's no friend of mine."

"But didn't you see him?"

"No."

They reached college again between ten and eleven, and parted, each to his own rooms.

To his surprise, Tom found a candle burning on his table. Round the candle was tied a piece of string, at the end of which hung a note. Who ever had put it there had clearly been anxious that he should in no case miss it when he came in. He took it up and saw that it was in Hardy's hand. He paused, and trembled as he stood. Then with an effort he broke the seal and read:-

"I must speak once more. To-morrow it may be too late. If you go to Abingdon fair with her in the company of Drysdale and his mistress, or, I believe, in any company, you will return a scoundrel, and she-; in the name of the honor of your mother and sister, in the name of God, I warn you. May He help you through it.

"JOHN HARDY."

Here we will drop the curtain for the next hour. At the end of that time, Tom staggered out of his room, down the staircase, across the quadrangle, up Drysdale's staircase. He paused at the door to gather some strength, ran his hands through his hair, and arranged his coat; notwithstanding, when he entered, Drysdale started to his feet, upsetting Jack from his comfortable coil on the sofa.

"Why, Brown, you're ill; have some brandy," he said, and went to his cupboard for the bottle.

Tom leant his arm on the fireplace; his head on it. The other hung down by his side, and Jack licked it, and he loved the dog as he felt the caress. Then Drysdale came to his side with a glass of brandy, which he took and tossed off as though it had been water. "Thank you," he said, and as Drysdale went back with the bottle, reached a large armchair and sat down in it.

"Drysdale, I sha'n't go with you to Abingdon fair to-morrow."

"Hullo! what, has the lovely Patty thrown you over?" said Drysdale, turning from the cupboard, and resuming his lounge on the sofa.

"No." he sank back into the chair, on the arms of which his elbows rested, and put his hands up before his face, pressing them against his burning temples. Drysdale looked at him hard, but said nothing; and there was a dead silence of a minute or so, broken only by Tom's heavy breathing, which he labored in vain to control.

"No," he repeated at last, and the remaining words came out slowly as they were trying to steady themselves, "but, by God, Drysdale I can't take her with you, and that-" a dead pause.

"The young lady you met to-night, eh?"

Tom nodded, but said nothing.

"Well, old fellow," said Drysdale, "now you've made up your mind, I tell you, I'm devilish glad of it. I'm no saint, as you know, but I think it would have been a d-d shame if you had taken her with us."

"Thank you," said Tom, and pressed his fingers tighter on his forehead; and he did feel thankful for the words, though coming from such a man, they went into him like coals of fire.

Again there was a long pause, Tom sitting as before.

Drysdale got up and strolled up and down his room, with his hands in the pockets of his silk-lined lounging coat, taking at each turn a steady look at the other. Presently he stopped, and took his cigar out of his mouth. "I say, Brown," he said, after another minute's contemplation of the figure before him, which bore such an unmistakable impress of wretchedness, that it made him quite uncomfortable, "why don't you cut that concern?"

"How do you mean?" said Tom.

"Why that 'Choughs' business-I'll be hanged if it won't kill you, or make a devil of you before long, if you go on with it."

"It's not far from that now."

"So I see-and I'll tell you what, you're not the sort of fellow to go in for this kind of thing. You'd better leave it to cold-blooded brutes, like some we know-I needn't mention names."

"I'm awfully wretched, Drysdale; I've been a brute my self to you and everybody of late."

"Well, I own I don't like the new side of you. Now make up your mind to cut the whole concern, old fellow," he said, coming up goodnaturedly, and putting his hand on Tom's shoulder, "it's hard to do, I dare say, but you had better make a plunge and get it over. There's wickedness enough going about without your helping to shove another one into it."

Tom groaned as he listened, but he felt that the man was trying to help him in his own way, and according to his light, as Drysdale went on expounding his own curious code of morality. When it was ended, he shook Drysdale's hand, and, wishing him good night, went back to his own rooms. The first step upwards towards the light had been made,-for he felt thoroughly humbled before the man on whom he had expended in his own mind so much patronizing pity for the last half year-whom he had been fancying he was influencing for good.

During the long hours of the night the scenes of the last few hours, of the last few days, came back to him and burnt into his soul. The gulf yawned before him now plain enough, open at his feet-black, ghastly. He shuddered at it, wondering if he should even yet fall in, felt wildly about for strength to stand firm, to retrace his steps; but found it not. He found not yet the strength he was in search of, but in the grey morning he wrote a short note:-

"I shall not be able to take you to Abingdon fair to-day. You will not see me perhaps for some days. I am not well.

"I am very sorry. Don't think that I am changed. Don't be unhappy, or I don't know what I may do." There was no address and no signature to the note.

When the gates opened he hurried out of the college and, having left it and a shilling with Dick (whom he found cleaning the yard, and much astonished at his appearance, and who promised to deliver it to Patty with his own hands before eight o'clock), he got back again to his own rooms, went to bed, worn out in mind and body, and slept till mid-day.

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