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   Chapter 17 NEW GROUND

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 25437

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


My readers have now been steadily at Oxford for six months without moving. Most people find such a spell of the place without a change quite as much as they care to take; perhaps too, it may do our hero good to let him alone for a little, that he may have time to look steadily into the pit which he has been so near falling down, which is still yawning awkwardly in his path; moreover, the exigencies of a story teller must lead him away from home now and then. Like the rest of us, his family must have change of air, or he has to go off to see a friend properly married, or a connexion buried; to wear white or black gloves with or for some one, carrying such sympathy as he can with him, so that he may come back from every journey, however short, with a wider horizon. Yes; to come back home after every stage of life's journeying with a wider horizon-more in sympathy with men and nature, knowing ever more of the righteous and eternal laws which govern them, and of the righteous and loving will which is above all, and around all, and beneath all-this must be the end and aim of all of us, or we shall be wandering about blindfold, and spending time and labor and journey-money on that which profiteth nothing. So now I must ask my readers to forget the old buildings and quadrangles of the fairest of England's cities, the caps and the gowns, the reading and rowing for a short space, and take a flight with me to other scenes and pastures new.

The nights are pleasant in May, short and pleasant for travel. We will leave the ancient city asleep, and do our flight in the night to save time. Trust yourself then to the story-teller's aerial machine. It is but a rough affair, I own, rough and humble, unfitted for high or great flights, with no gilded panels or dainty cushions, or C-springs-not that we shall care about springs, by the way, until we alight on terra firma again-still, there is much to be learned in a third-class carriage if we will only not look while in it for cushions and fine panels, and forty miles an hour traveling, and will not be shocked at our fellow passengers for being weak in their h's and smelling of fustian. Mount in it, then, you who will, after this warning; the fares are holiday fares, the tickets return tickets. Take with you nothing but the poet's luggage,

"A smile for Hope, a tear for Pain,

A breath to swell the voice of Prayer."

and may you have a pleasant journey, for it is time that the stoker should be looking to his going gear.

So now we rise slowly in the moonlight from St. Ambrose's quadrangle, and, when we are clear of the clock-tower, steer away southwards, over Oxford city and all its sleeping wisdom and folly, over street and past spire, over Christ Church and the canons' houses, and the fountain in Tom quad; over St. Aldate's and the river, along which the moonbeams lie in a pathway of twinkling silver, over the railway sheds-no, there was then no railway, but only the quiet fields and footpaths of Hincksey hamlet. Well, no matter; at any rate, the hills beyond, and Bagley Wood, were there then as now; and over hills and wood we rise, catching the purr of the night-jar, the trill of the nightingale, and the first crow of the earliest cock-pheasant, as he stretches his jewelled wings, conscious of his strength and his beauty, heedless of the fellows of St. John's, who slumber within sight of his perch, on whose hospitable board he shall one day lie, prone on his back, with fair larded breast turned upwards for the carving-knife, having crowed his last crow. He knows it not; what matters it to him? If he knew it, could a Bagley Wood cock-pheasant desire a better ending?

We pass over the vale beyond; hall and hamlet, church, and meadow, and copse, folded in mist and shadow below us, each hamlet holding in its bosom the material of three volumed novels by the dozen, if we could only pull off the roofs of the houses and look steadily into the interiors; but our destination is farther yet. The faint white streak behind the distant Chilterns reminds us that we have no time for gossip by the way; May nights are short, and the sun will be up by four. No matter; our journey will now be soon over, for the broad vale is crossed, and the chalk hills and downs beyond. Larks quiver up by us, "higher, ever higher," hastening up to get a first glimpse of the coming monarch, careless of food, flooding the fresh air with song. Steadily plodding rooks labour along below us, and lively starlings rush by on the look-out for the early worm; lark and swallow, rook and starling, each on his appointed round. The sun arises, and they get them to it; he is up now, and these breezy uplands over which we hang are swimming in the light of horizontal rays, though the shadows and mists still lie on the wooded dells which slope away southwards.

Here let us bring to, over the village of Englebourn, and try to get acquainted with the outside of the place before the good folk are about, and we have to go down among them and their sayings and doings.

The village lies on the southern slopes of the Berkshire hills, on the opposite side to that under which our hero was born. Another soil altogether is here, we remark in the first place. This is no chalk; this high knoll which rises above-one may almost say hangs over-the village, crowned with Scotch firs, its sides tufted with gorse and heather. It is the Hawk's Lynch, the favorite resort of Englebourn folk, who come up for the view, for the air, because their fathers and mothers came up before them, because they came up themselves as children-from an instinct which moves them all in leisure hours and Sunday evenings, when the sun shines and the birds sing, whether they care for view or air or not. Something guides all their feet hitherward; the children, to play hide-and-seek and look for nests in the gorse-bushes; young men and maidens, to saunter and look and talk, as they will till the world's end-or as long, at any rate, as the Hawk's Lynch and Englebourn last-and to cut their initials, enclosed in a true lover's knot, on the short rabbit's turf; steady married couples, to plod along together consulting on hard times and growing families; even old tottering men, who love to sit at the feet of the firs, with chins leaning on their sticks, prattling of days long past, to anyone who will listen, or looking silently with dim eyes into the summer air, feeling perhaps in their spirits after a wider and more peaceful view which will soon open for them. A common knoll, open to all, up in the silent air, well away from every-day Englebourn life, with the Hampshire range and the distant Beacon Hill lying soft on the horizon, and nothing higher between you and the southern sea, what a blessing the Hawk's Lynch is to the village folk, one and all! May Heaven and a thankless soil long preserve it and them from an enclosure under the Act!

There is much temptation lying about, though, for the enclosers of the world. The rough common land stretches over the whole of the knoll, and down to its base, and away along the hills behind, of which the Hawk's Lynch is an outlying spur. Rough common land, broken only by pine woods of a few acres each in extent, an occasional woodman's or squatter's cottage and little patch of attempted garden. But immediately below, and on each flank of the spur, and half-way up the slopes, come small farm enclosures, breaking here and there the belt of woodlands, which generally lies between the rough wild upland, and the cultivated country below. As you stand on the knoll you can see common land just below you at its foot narrow into a mere road, with a border of waste on each side which runs into Englebourn street. At the end of the straggling village stands the church with its square tower, a lofty grey stone building, with bits of fine decorated architecture about it, but much of churchwarden Gothic supervening. The churchyard is large, and the graves, as you can see plainly even from this distance, are all crowded on the southern side. The rector's sheep are feeding in the northern part, nearest to us, and a small gate at one corner opens into his garden. The Rectory looks large and comfortable, and its grounds well cared for and extensive, with a rookery of elms at the lawn's end. It is the chief house of the place, for there is no resident squire. The principal street contains a few shops, some dozen, perhaps, in all; and several farm houses lie a little back from it, with gardens in front, and yards and barns and orchards behind; and there are two public-houses. The other dwellings are mere cottages, and very bad ones for the most part, with floors below the level of the street. Almost every house in the village is thatched, which adds to the beauty though not to the comfort of the place. The rest of the population who do not live in the street are dotted about the neighboring lanes, chiefly towards the west, on our right as we look down from the Hawk's Lynch. On this side the country is more open, and here most of the farmers live, as we may see by the number of homesteads. And there is a small brook on that side too, which with careful damming is made to turn a mill, there where you see the clump of poplars. On our left as we look down, the country to the east of the village is thickly wooded; but we can see that there is a village green on that side, and a few scattered cottages, the farthest of which stands looking out like a little white eye, from the end of a dense copse.

Beyond it there is no sign of habitation for some two miles; then you can see the tall chimneys of a great house, and a well timbered park round it. The Grange is not in Englebourn parish-happily for that parish, one is sorry to remark. It must be a very bad squire who does not do more good than harm by living in a country village. But there are very bad squires, and the owner of the Grange is one of them. He is, however, for the most part, an absentee, so that we are little concerned with him, and in fact, have only to notice this one of his bad habits, that he keeps that long belt of woodlands, which runs into Englebourn parish, and comes almost up to the village, full of hares and pheasants. He has only succeeded to the property some three or four years, and yet the head of game on the estate, and above all in the woods, has trebled or quadrupled. Pheasants by hundreds are reared under hens, from eggs bought in London, and run about the keepers' houses as tame as barn door fowls all the summer. When the first party comes down for the first battue early in October, it is often as much as the beaters can do to persuade these pampered fowls that they are wild game, whose duty it is to get up and fly away, and be shot at. However, they soon learn more of the world-such of them, at least, as are not slain-and are unmistakable wild birds in a few days. Then they take to roosting farther from their old haunts, more in the outskirts of the woods, and the time comes for others besides the squire's guests to take their education in hand, and teach pheasants at least that they are no native British birds. These are a wild set, living scattered about the wild country; turf-cutters, broom-makers, squatters, with indefinite occupations, and nameless habits, a race hated of keepers and constables. These have increased and flourished of late years; and, notwithstanding the imprisonments and transportations which deprive them periodically of the most enterprising members of their community, one and all give thanks for the day when the owner of the Grange took to pheasant breeding. If the demoralization stopped with them, little harm might come of it, as they would steal fowls in the homesteads if there were no pheasants in the woods-which latter are less dangerous to get, and worth more when gotten. But, unhappily, this method of earning a livelihood has strong attractions, and is catching; and the cases of farm labourers who get into trouble about game are more frequent season by season in the neighbouring parishes, and Englebourn is no better than the rest. And the men are not likely to be much discouraged from these practices, or taught better by the fanners; for, if there is one thing more than another that drives that sturdy set of men, the Englebourn yeomen, into a frenzy, it is talk of the game in the Grange covers. Not that they dislike sport; they like it too well, and, moreover, have been used to their fair share of it. For the late squire left the game entirely in their hands. "You know best how much game your land will carry without serious damage to the crops," he used to say. "I like to show my friends a fair day's

sport when they are with me, and have enough game to supply the house and make a few presents. Beyond that, it is no affair of mine. You can course whenever you like; and let me know when you want a day's shooting, and you shall have it." Under this system the yeomen became keen sportsmen; they and all their labourers took a keen interest in preserving, and the whole district would have risen on a poacher. The keeper's place became a sinecure, and the squire had as much game as he wanted without expense, and was, moreover, the most popular man in the county. Even after the new man came, and all was changed, the mere revocation of their sporting liberties, and the increase of game, unpopular as these things were, would not alone have made the farmers so bitter, and have raised that sense of outraged justice in them. But with these changes came in a custom new in the country-the custom of selling the game. At first the report was not believed; but soon it became notorious that no head of game from the Grange estates was ever given away, that not only did the tenants never get a brace of birds or a hare, or the labourers a rabbit, but not one of the gentlemen who helped to kill the game ever found any of the bag in his dog-cart after the day's shooting. Nay, so shameless had the system become, and so highly was the art of turning the game to account cultivated at the Grange, that the keepers sold powder and shot to any of the guests who had emptied their own belts or flasks at something over the market retail price. The light cart drove to the market-town twice a week in the season, loaded heavily with game, but more heavily with the hatred and scorn of the farmers; and, if deep and bitter curses could break patent axles or necks, the new squire and his game-cart would not long have vexed the countryside. As it was, not a man but his own tenants would salute him in the market-place; and these repaid themselves for the unwilling courtesy by bitter reflections on a squire who was mean enough to pay his butcher's and poulterer's bills out of their pockets.

Alas that the manly instinct of sport which is so strong in all of us Englishmen-which sends Oswells single handed against the mightiest beasts that walk the earth, and takes the poor cockney journeyman out a ten miles' walk almost before daylight, on the rare summer holiday mornings, to angle with rude tackle in reservoir or canal-should be dragged through such mire as this in many an English shire in our day. If English landlords want to go on shooting game much longer, they must give up selling it. For if selling game becomes the rule, and not the exception (as it seems likely to do before long), good-bye to sport in England. Every man who loves his country more than his pleasure or his pocket-and, thank God, that includes the great majority of us yet, however much we may delight in gun and rod, let any demagogue in the land say what he pleases-will cry, "Down with it," and lend a hand to put it down for ever.

But to return to our perch on the Hawk's Lynch above Englebourn village. The rector is the fourth of his race who holds the family living-a kind, easy-going, gentlemanly old man, a Doctor of Divinity, as becomes his position, though he only went into orders because there was the living ready for him. In his day he had been a good magistrate and neighbour, living with and much in the same way as the squires round about. But his contemporaries had dropped off one by one; his own health had long been failing; his wife was dead; and the young generation did not seek him. His work and the parish had no real hold on him; so he had nothing to fall back on, and had become a confirmed invalid, seldom leaving the house and garden even to go to church, and thinking more of his dinner and his health than of all other things in earth or heaven.

The only child who remained at home with him was a daughter, a girl of nineteen or thereabouts, whose acquaintance we shall make presently, and who was doing all that a good heart and sound head prompted in nursing an old hypochondriac, and filling his place in the parish. But though the old man was weak and selfish, he was kind in his way, and ready to give freely or do anything that his daughter suggested for the good of his people, provided the trouble were taken off his shoulders. In the year before our tale opens, he had allowed some thirty acres of his glebe to be parcelled out in allotments amongst the poor; and his daughter spent almost what she pleased in clothing-clubs, and sick-clubs, and the school, without a word from him. Whenever he did remonstrate, she managed to get what she wanted out of the house-money, or her own allowance.

We must make acquaintance with such other of the inhabitants as it concerns us to know in the course of the story; for it is broad daylight, and the villagers will be astir directly. Folk who go to bed before nine, after a hard day's work, get into the habit of turning out soon after the sun calls them. So now, descending from the Hawk's Lynch, we will alight at the east end of Englebourn, opposite the little white cottage which looks out at the end of the great wood, near the village green.

Soon after five on that bright Sunday morning, Harry Winburn unbolted the door of his mother's cottage, and stepped out in his shirt-sleeves on to the little walk in front, paved with pebbles. Perhaps some of my readers will recognize the name of an old acquaintance, and wonder how he got here; so let us explain at once. Soon after our hero went to school, Harry's father had died of a fever. He had been a journeyman blacksmith, and in the receipt, consequently, of rather better wages than generally fall to the lot of the peasantry, but not enough to leave much of a margin over current expenditure. Moreover, the Winburns had always been open-handed with whatever money they had; so that all he left for his widow and child, of worldly goods, was their "few sticks" of furniture, L5 in the savings bank, and the money from his burial-club which was not more than enough to give him a creditable funeral-that object of honorable ambition to all the independent poor. He left, however, another inheritance to them, which is in price above rubies, neither shall silver be named in comparison thereof,-the inheritance of an honest name, of which his widow was proud, and which was not likely to suffer in her hands.

After the funeral, she removed to Englebourn, her own native village, and kept her old father's house till his death. He was one of the woodmen to the Grange, and lived in the cottage at the corner of the wood in which his work lay. When he, too, died, hard times came on Widow Winburn. The steward allowed her to keep on the cottage. The rent was a sore burden to her, but she would sooner have starved than leave it. Parish relief was out of the question for her father's child and her husband's widow; so she turned her hand to every odd job which offered, and went to work in the fields when nothing else could be had. Whenever there was sickness in the place, she was an untiring nurse; and, at one time, for some nine months, she took the office of postman, and walked daily some nine miles through a severe winter. The fatigue and exposure had broken down her health, and made her an old woman before her time. At last, in a lucky hour, the Doctor came to hear of her praiseworthy struggles, and gave her the Rectory washing, which had made her life a comparatively easy one again.

During all this time her poor neighbors had stood by her as the poor do stand by one another, helping her in numberless small ways, so that she had been able to realize the great object of her life, and keep Harry at school till he was nearly fourteen. By this time he had learned all that the village pedagogue could teach, and had in fact become an object of mingled pride and jealousy to that worthy man, who had his misgivings lest Harry's fame as a scholar should eclipse his own before many years were over.

Mrs. Winburn's character was so good, that no sooner was her son ready for a place than a place was ready for him; he stepped at once into the dignity of carter's boy, and his earnings, when added to his mother's, made them comfortable enough. Of course she was wrapped up in him, and believed that there was no such boy in the parish. And indeed she was nearer the truth than most mothers, for he soon grew into a famous specimen of a countryman; tall and lithe, full of nervous strength, and not yet bowed down or stiffened by the constant toil of a labourer's daily life. In these matters, however, he had rivals in the village; but in intellectual accomplishments he was unrivalled. He was full of learning according to the village standard, could write and cipher well, was fond of reading such books as came in his way, and spoke his native English almost without an accent. He is one-and-twenty at the time when our story takes him up; a thoroughly skilled labourer, the best hedger and ditcher in the parish; and, when his blood is up, he can shear twenty sheep in a day, without razing the skin, or mow for sixteen hours at a stretch, with rests of half an hour for meals twice in the day.

Harry shaded his eyes with his hand for a minute, as he stood outside the cottage drinking in the fresh, pure air, laden with the scent of the honeysuckle which he had trained over the porch, and listening to the chorus of linnets and finches from the copse at the back of the house; he then set about the household duties, which he always made it a point of honour to attend to himself on Sundays. First he unshuttered the little lattice-window of the room on the ground floor; a simple enough operation, for the shutter was a mere wooden flap, which was closed over the window at night and bolted with a wooden bolt on the outside, and thrown back against the wall in the daytime. Any one who would could have opened it at any moment of the night; but the poor sleep sound without bolts. Then he took the one old bucket of the establishment, and strode away to the well on the village green, and filled it with clear, cold water, doing the same kind office for the vessels of two or three rosy little damsels and boys, of ages varying from ten to fourteen, who were already astir, and to whom the winding-up of the parish chain and bucket would have been a work of difficulty. Returning to the cottage, he proceeded to fill his mother's kettle, sweep the hearth, strike a light, and make up the fire with a faggot from the little stack in the corner of the garden. Then he hauled the three-legged round table before the fire, and dusted it carefully over, and laid out the black Japan tea-tray with two delf cups and saucers of gorgeous pattern, and diminutive plates to match, and placed the sugar and slop basins, the big loaf and small piece of salt butter, in their accustomed places, and the little black teapot on the hob to get properly warm. There was little more to be done indoors, for the furniture was scanty enough; but everything in turn received its fair share of attention, and the little room, with its sunken tiled floor and yellow-washed walls, looked cheerful and homely. Then Harry turned his attention to the shed of his own contriving, which stood beside the faggot-stack, and from which expostulatory and plaintive grunts had been issuing ever since his first appearance at the door, telling of a faithful and useful friend who was sharp set on Sunday mornings, and desired his poor breakfast, and to be dismissed for the day to pick up the rest of his livelihood with his brethren porkers of the village on the green and in the lanes. Harry served out to the porker the poor mess which the wash of the cottage and the odds and ends of the little garden afforded; which that virtuous animal forthwith began to discuss with both fore-feet in the trough-by way, probably, of adding to the flavor-while his master scratched him gently between the ears and on the back with a short stick till the repast was concluded. Then he opened the door of the stye, and the grateful animal rushed out into the lane, and away to the green with a joyful squeal and flirt of his hind-quarters in the air; and Harry, after picking a bunch of wall-flowers, and pansies, and hyacinths, a line of which flowers skirted the narrow garden walk, and putting them in a long-necked glass which he took from the mantel-piece, proceeded to his morning ablutions, ample materials for which remained at the bottom of the family bucket, which he had put down on a little bench by the side of the porch. These finished, he retired indoors to shave and dress himself.

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