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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 29238

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

All dwellers in and about London are, alas! too well acquainted with the never-to-be-enough-hated change which we have to undergo once, at least, in every spring. As each succeeding winter wears away, the same thing happens to us.

For some time we do not trust the fair lengthening days, and cannot believe that the dirty pair of sparrows who live opposite our window are really making love and going to build, notwithstanding all their twittering. But morning after morning rises fresh and gentle; there is no longer any voice in the air; we drop our over-coats; we rejoice in the green shoots which the privet hedge is making in the square garden, and hail the returning tender-pointed leaves of the plane-trees as friends; we go out of our way to walk through Covent Garden Market to see the ever-brightening show of flowers from the happy country.

This state of things goes on sometimes for a few days only, sometimes for weeks, till we make sure that we are safe for this spring at any rate. Don't we wish we may get it! Sooner or later, but sure-sure as Christmas bills or the income-tax, or anything, if there be anything, surer than these-comes the morning when we are suddenly conscious as soon as we rise that there is something the matter. We do not feel comfortable in our clothes; nothing tastes quite as it should at breakfast; though the day looks bright enough, there is a fierce dusty taste about it as we look out through windows, which no instinct now prompts us to throw open, as it has done every day for the last month.

But it is only when we open our doors and issue into the street, that the hateful reality comes right home to us. All moisture, and softness, and pleasantness has gone clean out of the air since last night; we seem to inhale yards of horse hair instead of satin; our skins dry up; our eyes, and hair, and whiskers, and clothes are soon filled with loathsome dust, and our nostrils with the reek of the great city. We glance at the weather-cock on the nearest steeple, and see that it points N.E. And so long as the change lasts, we carry about with us a feeling of anger and impatience, as though we personally were being ill-treated. We could have borne with it well enough in November; it would have been natural, and all in the days work in March; but now, when Rotten Row is beginning to be crowded, when long lines of pleasure vans are leaving town on Monday mornings for Hampton Court or the poor remains of dear Epping Forest, when the exhibitions are open, or about to open, when the religious public is up, or on its way up, for May meetings, when the Thames is already sending up faint warnings of what we may expect as soon as his dirty old life's blood shall have been thoroughly warmed up, and the "Ship", and "Trafalgar", and the "Star and Garter" are in full swing at the antagonistic poles of the cockney system, we do feel that this blight which has come over us and everything is an insult, and that while it lasts, as there is nobody who can be made particularly responsible for it, we are justified in going about in general disgust, and ready to quarrel with anybody we may meet on the smallest pretext.

This sort of east-windy state is perhaps the best physical analogy for that mental one in which our hero now found himself. The real crises was over; he had managed to pass through the eye of the storm, and drift for the present at least into the skirts of it, where he lay rolling under bare poles, comparatively safe, but without any power as yet to get the ship well in hand, and make her obey her helm. The storm might break over him again at any minute, and would find him almost as helpless as ever.

For he could not follow Drysdale's advice at once, and break off his visits to "The Choughs" altogether. He went back again after a day or two, but only for short visits; he never stayed behind now after the other men left the bar, and avoided interviews with Patty alone as diligently as he had sought them before. She was puzzled at his change of manner, and not being able to account for it, was piqued, and ready to revenge herself, and pay him out in the hundred little ways which the least practiced of her sex know how to employ for the discipline of any of the inferior or trousered half of the creation. If she had been really in love with him, it would have been a different matter; but she was not. In the last six weeks she had certainly often had visions of the pleasures of being a lady and keeping servants, and riding in a carriage like the squires' and rectors' wives and daughters about her home. She had a liking, even a sentiment for him, which might very well have grown into something dangerous before long; but as yet it was not more than skin deep. Of late, indeed, she had been much more frightened than attracted by the conduct of her admirer, and really felt it a relief, notwithstanding her pique, when he retired into the elder brother sort of state. But she would have been more than woman if she had not resented the change; and so very soon the pangs of jealousy were added to his other troubles. Other men were beginning to frequent "The Choughs" regularly. Drysdale, besides dividing with Tom the prestige of being an original discoverer, was by far the largest customer. St. Cloud came, and brought Chanter with him, to whom Patty was actually civil, not because she liked him at all, but because she saw that it made Tom furious. Though he could not fix on any one man in particular, he felt that mankind in general were gaining on him. In his better moments, indeed, he often wished that she would take the matter into her own hands and throw him over for good and all; but keep away from the place altogether he could not, and often when he fancied himself on the point of doing it, a pretty toss of her head, or a kind look of her eyes would scatter all his good resolutions to the four winds.

And so the days dragged on, and he dragged on through them; hot fits of conceit alternating in him with cold fits of despondency and mawkishness and discontent with everything and everybody, which were all the more intolerable from their entire strangeness. Instead of seeing the bright side of all things, he seemed to be looking at creation through yellow spectacles, and saw faults and blemishes in all his acquaintance, which had been till now invisible.

But the more he was inclined to depreciate all other men, the more he felt there was one to whom he had been grossly unjust. And, as he recalled all that had passed, he began to do justice to the man who had not flinched from warning him and braving him, who he felt had been watching over him, and trying to guide him straight, when he had lost all power or will to keep straight himself.

From this time the dread increased on him lest any of the other men should find out his quarrel with Hardy. Their utter ignorance of it encouraged him in the hope that it might all pass off like a bad dream. While it remained a matter between them alone, he felt that all might come straight, though he could not think how. He began to loiter by the entrance of the passage which led to Hardy's rooms; sometimes he would find something to say to his scout or bed-maker which took him into the back outside Hardy's window, glancing at it sideways as he stood giving his orders. There it was, wide open, generally-he hardly knew whether he hoped to catch a glimpse of the owner, but he did hope that Hardy might hear his voice. He watched him in chapel and hall furtively, but constantly, and was always fancying what he was doing and thinking about. Was it as painful an effort to Hardy, he wondered, as to him to go on speaking, as if nothing had happened, when they met at the boats, as they did now again almost daily (for Diogenes was bent on training some of the torpids for next year), and yet never to look one another in the face; to live together as usual during part of every day, and yet to feel all the time that a great wall had risen between them, more hopelessly dividing them for the time than thousands of miles of ocean or continent?

Amongst other distractions which Tom tried at this crisis of his life, was reading. For three or four days running, he really worked hard-very hard, if we were to reckon by the number of hours he spent in his own rooms over his books with his oak sported-hard, even though we should only reckon by results. For, though scarcely an hour passed that he was not balancing on the hind legs of his chair with a vacant look in his eyes, and thinking of anything but Greek roots or Latin constructions, yet on the whole he managed to get through a good deal, and one evening, for the first time since his quarrel with Hardy, felt a sensation of real comfort-it hardly amounted to pleasure-as he closed his Sophocles some hour or so after hall, having just finished the last of the Greek plays which he meant to take in for his first examination. He leaned back in his chair and sat for a few minutes, letting his thoughts follow their own bent. They soon took to going wrong, and he jumped up in fear lest he should be drifting back into the black stormy sea, in the trough of which he had been laboring so lately, and which he felt he was by no means clear of yet. At first he caught up his cap and gown as though he were going out. There was a wine party at one of his acquaintance's rooms; or he could go and smoke a cigar in the pool room, or at any one of a dozen other places. On second thoughts, however, he threw his academicals back on to the sofa and went to his book-case. The reading had paid so well that evening that he resolved to go on with it. He had no particular object in selecting one book more than another, and so took down carelessly the first that came to hand.

It happened to be a volume of Plato, and opened of its own accord at the "Apology." He glanced at a few lines. What a flood of memories they called up! This was almost the last book he had read at school; and teacher, and friends, and lofty oak-shelved library stood out before him at once. Then the blunders that he himself and others had made rushed through his mind, and he almost burst into a laugh as he wheeled his chair round to the window, and began reading where he had opened, encouraging every thought of the old times when he first read that marvellous defense, and throwing himself back into them with all his might. And still, as he read, forgotten words of wise comment, and strange thoughts of wonder and longing, came back to him. The great truth which he had been led to the brink of in those early days rose in all its awe and all its attractiveness before him. He leaned back in his chair, and gave himself up to his thought; and how strangely that thought bore on the struggle which had been raging in him of late; how an answer seemed to be trembling to come out of it to all the cries, now defiant, now plaintive, which had gone up out of his heart in this time of trouble! For his thought was of that spirit, distinct from himself, and yet communing with his inmost soul, always dwelling in him, knowing him better than he knew himself, never misleading him, always leading him to light and truth, of which the old philosopher spoke. "The old heathen, Socrates, did actually believe that-there can be no question about it;" he thought, "Has not the testimony of the best men through these two thousand years borne witness that he was right-that he did not believe a lie? That was what we were told. Surely I don't mistake! Were we not told, too, or did I dream it, that what was true for him was true for every man-for me? That there is a spirit dwelling in me, striving with me, ready to lead me into all truth if I will submit to his guidance?"

"Ay! submit, submit, there's the rub! Give yourself up to his guidance! Throw up the reins, and say you've made a mess of it. Well, why not? Haven't I made a mess of it? Am I fit to hold the reins?"

"Not I"-he got up and began walking about his rooms-"I give it up."

"Give it up!" he went on presently; "yes, but to whom? Not to the daemon spirit, whatever it was, who took up abode in the old Athenian-at least, so he said, and so I believe. No, no! Two thousand years and all that they have seen have not passed over the world to leave us just where he was left. We want no daemons or spirits. And yet the old heathen was guided right, and what can a man want more? and who ever wanted guidance more than I now-here-in this room-at this minute? I give up the reins; who will take them?" And so there came on him one of those seasons when a man's thoughts cannot be followed in words. A sense of awe came on him, and over him, and wrapped him round; awe at a presence of which he was becoming suddenly conscious, into which he seemed to have wandered, and yet which he felt must have been there around him, in his own heart and soul, though he knew it not. There was hope and longing in his heart, mingling with the fear of that presence, but withal the old reckless and daring feeling which he knew so well, still bubbling up untamed, untamable it seemed to him.

The room stifled him now; so he threw on his cap and gown, and hurried down into the quadrangle. It was very quiet; probably there was not a dozen men in college. He walked across to the low, dark entrance of the passage which led to Hardy's rooms, and there paused. Was he there by chance, or was he guided there? Yes, this was the right way for him, he had no doubt now as to that; down the dark passage and into the room he knew so well-and what then? He took a short turn or two before the entrance. How could he be sure that Hardy was alone? And, if not, to go in would be worse than useless. If he were alone, what should he say? After all, must he go in there? was there no way but that?

The college clock struck a quarter to seven. It was his usual time for "The Choughs;" the house would be quiet now; was there not one looking out for him there who would be grieved if he did not come? After all, might not that be his way, for this night at least? He might bring pleasure to one human being by going there at once. That he knew; what else could he be sure of?

At this moment he heard Hardy's door open and a voice saying "Good-night," and the next Grey came out of the passage, and was passing close to him.

"Join yourself to him." The impulse came so strongly into Tom's mind this time, that it was like a voice speaking him. He yielded to it, and, stepping to Grey's side, wished him good-evening. The other returned his salute in hi

s shy way, and was hurrying on, but Tom kept by him.

"Have you been reading with Hardy?"


"How is he? I have not seen anything of him for some time."

"Oh, very well, I think," said Grey, glancing sideways at his questioner, and adding, after a moment, "I have wondered rather not to see you there of late."

"Are you going to your school?" said Tom, breaking away from the subject.

"Yes, and I am rather late; I must make haste on; good night."

"Will you let me go with you to-night? It would be a real kindness. Indeed," he added, as he saw how embarrassing his proposal was to Grey, "I will do whatever you tell me-you don't know how grateful I should be to you. Do let me go-just for to-night. Try me once."

Grey hesitated, turned his head sharply once or twice as they walked on together, and then said with something like a sigh-

"I don't know, I'm sure. Did you ever teach in a night school?"

"No, but I have taught in the Sunday-school at home sometimes.

Indeed, I will do whatever you tell me."

"Oh! but this is not at all like a Sunday-school. They are a very rough, wild lot."

"The rougher the better," said Tom; "I shall know how to manage them then."

"But you must not really be rough with them."

"No, I won't; I didn't mean that," said Tom, hastily, for he saw his mistake at once. "I shall take it as a great favor, if you will let me go with you to-night. You won't repent it, I'm sure."

Grey did not seem at all sure of this, but saw no means of getting rid of his companion, and so they walked on together and turned down a long, narrow court in the lowest part of the town. At the doors of the houses laboring men, mostly Irish, lounged or stood about, smoking and talking to one another, or to the women who leant out of the windows, or passed to and fro on their various errands of business or pleasure. A group of half-grown lads were playing at pitch-farthing at the farther end, and all over the court were scattered children of all ages, ragged and noisy little creatures most of them, on whom paternal and maternal admonitions and cuffs were constantly being expended, and to all appearances in vain.

At the sight of Grey a shout arose amongst the smaller boys, of "Here's the teacher!" and they crowded around him and Tom as they went up the court. Several of the men gave him a half-surly half-respectful nod, as he passed along, wishing them good evening. The rest merely stared at him and his companion. They stopped at a door which Grey opened, and led the way into the passage of an old tumble-down cottage, on the ground floor of which were two low rooms which served for the school-rooms.

A hard-featured, middle-aged woman, who kept the house, was waiting, and said to Grey, "Mr. Jones told me to say, sir, he would not be here to night, as he has got a bad fever case-so you was to take only the lower classes, sir, he said; and the policeman would be near to keep out the big boys if you wanted him. Shall I go and tell him to step round, sir?"

Grey looked embarrassed for a moment, and then said, "No, never mind; you can go;" and then turning to Tom, added, "Jones is the curate; he won't be here to-night; and some of the bigger boys are very noisy and troublesome, and only come to make a noise. However, if they come we must do our best."

Meantime, the crowd of small ragged urchins had filled the room, and were swarming on to the benches and squabbling for the copy-books which were laid out on the thin desks. Grey set to work to get them into order, and soon the smallest were draughted off into the inner room with slates and spelling-books, and the bigger ones, some dozen in number, settled to their writing. Tom seconded him so readily, and seemed so much at home, that Grey felt quite relieved.

"You seem to get on capitally," he said; "I will go into the inner room to the little ones, and you stay and take these. There are the class-books when they have done their copies," and so went off into the inner room and closed the door.

Tom set himself to work with a will, and as he bent over one after another of the pupils, and guided the small grubby hands which clutched the inky pens with cramped fingers, and went spluttering and blotching along the lines of the copy-books, felt the yellow scales dropping from his eyes, and more warmth coming back into his heart than he had known there for many a day.

All went on well inside, notwithstanding a few small out-breaks between the scholars, but every now and then mud was thrown against the window, and noises outside and in the passages threatened some interruption. At last, when the writing was finished, the copy-books cleared away, and the class-books distributed, the door opened, and two or three big boys of fifteen or sixteen lounged in, with their hands in their pockets and their caps on. There was an insolent look about them which set Tom's back up at once; however, he kept his temper, made them take their caps off, and, as they said they wanted to read with the rest, let them take their places on the benches.

But now came the tug of war. He could not keep his eyes on the whole lot at once, and, no sooner did he fix his attention on the stammering reader for the time being and try to help him, than anarchy broke out all round him. Small stones and shot were thrown about, and cries arose from the smaller fry, "Please, sir, he's been and poured some ink down my back," "He's stole my book, sir," "He's gone and stuck a pin in my leg." The evil-doers were so cunning that it was impossible to catch them; but as he was hastily turning in his own mind what to do, a cry arose, and one of the benches went suddenly over backwards on to the floor, carrying with it its whole freight of boys, except two of the bigger ones, who were the evident authors of the mishap.

Tom sprang at the one nearest him, seized him by the collar, hauled him into the passage, and sent him out of the street-door with a sound kick; and then rushing back, caught hold of the second, who went down on his back and clung round Tom's legs, shouting for help to his remaining companions, and struggling and swearing. It was all the work of a moment, and now the door opened, and Grey appeared from the inner room. Tom left off hauling his prize towards the passage, and felt and looked very foolish.

"This fellow, and another whom I have turned out, upset that form with all the little boys on it," he said, apologetically.

"It's a lie, t'wasn't me," roared the captive, to whom Tom administered a sound box on the ear, while the small boys, rubbing different parts of their bodies, chorused, "'twas him, teacher, 'twas him," and heaped further charges of pinching, pin-sticking, and other atrocities on him.

Grey astonished Tom by his firmness. "Don't strike him again," he said. "Now, go out at once, or I will send for your father." The fellow got up, and, after standing a moment and considering his chance of successful resistance to physical force in the person of Tom, and moral in that of Grey, slunk out. "You must go, too, Murphy," went on Grey to another of the intruders.

"Oh, your honor let me bide. I'll be as quiet as a mouse," pleaded the Irish boy; and Tom would have given in, but Grey was unyielding.

"You were turned out last week, and Mr. Jones said you were not to come back for a fortnight."

"Well, good night to your honor," said Murphy, and took himself off.

"The rest may stop," said Grey. "You had better take the inner room now; I will stay here."

"I'm very sorry," said Tom.

"You couldn't help it; no one can manage those two. Murphy is quite different, but I should have spoiled him if I had let him stay now."

The remaining half hour passed off quietly. Tom retired into the inner room, and took up Grey's lesson, which he had been reading to the boys from a large Bible with pictures. Out of consideration for their natural and acquired restlessness, the little fellows, who were all between eight and eleven years old, were only kept sitting at their pothooks and spelling for the first half hour or so, and then were allowed to crowd round the teacher, who read and talked to them, and showed them the pictures. Tom found the Bible open at the story of the prodigal son, and read it out to them as they clustered round his knees. Some of the outside ones fidgeted about a little, but those close round him listened with ears, and eyes, and bated breath; and two little blue-eyed boys, without shoes-their ragged clothes concealed by long pinafores which their widowed mother had put on clean to send them to school-leaned against him and looked up in his face, and his heart warmed to the touch and the look. "Please, teacher, read it again," they said when he finished; so he read it again and sighed when Grey came in and lighted a candle (for the room was getting dark) and said it was time for prayers.

A few collects, and the Lord's Prayer, in which all the young voices joined, drowning for a minute the noises from the court outside, finished the evening's schooling. The children trooped out, and Grey went to speak to the woman who kept the house. Tom, left to himself, felt strangely happy, and, for something to do, took the snuffers and commenced a crusade against a large family of bugs, who, taking advantage of the quiet, came cruising out of a crack in the otherwise neatly papered wall. Some dozen had fallen on his spear when Grey reappeared, and was much horrified at the sight. He called the woman and told her to have the hole carefully fumigated and mended.

"I thought we had killed them all long ago," he said; "but the place is tumbling down."

"It looks well enough," said Tom.

"Yes, we have it kept as tidy as possible. It ought to be at least a little better than what the children see at home." And so they left the school and court and walked up to college.

"Where are you going?" Tom said, as they entered the gate.

"To Hardy's rooms; will you come?"

"No, not to-night," said Tom; "I know that you want to be reading; I should only interrupt."

"Well, good night, then," said Grey, and went on, leaving Tom standing in the porch. On the way up from the school he had almost made up his mind to go to Hardy's rooms that night. He longed and yet feared to do so; and, on the whole, was not sorry for an excuse. Their first meeting must be alone, and it would be a very embarrassing one, for him at any rate. Grey, he hoped, would tell Hardy of his visit to the school, and that would show that he was coming round, and make the meeting easier. His talk with Grey, too, had removed one great cause of uneasiness from his mind. It was now quite clear that he had no suspicion of the quarrel, and, if Hardy had not told him, no one else could know of it.

Altogether, he strolled into the quadrangle a happier and sounder man than he had been since his first visit to "The Choughs", and looked up and answered with his old look and voice when he heard his name called from one of the first-floor windows.

The hailer was Drysdale, who was leaning out in lounging coat and velvet cap, and enjoying a cigar as usual, in the midst of the flowers of his hanging garden.

"You've heard the good news, I suppose?"

"No, what do you mean?"

"Why, Blake has got the Latin verse."

"Hurrah! I'm so glad."

"Come up and have a weed."

Tom ran up the staircase and into Drysdale's rooms, and was leaning out of the window at his side in another minute.

"What does he get by it?" he said, "do you know?"

"No; some books bound in Russia, I dare say, with the Oxford arms, and 'Dominus illuminatio mea,' on the back."

"No money?"

"Not much-perhaps a ten'ner," answered Drysdale, "but no end of

[Greek text] kudoz, I suppose."

"It makes it look well for his first, don't you think? But I wish he had got some money for it. I often feel very uncomfortable about that bill, don't you?"

"Not I, what's the good? It's nothing when you are used to it.

Besides, it don't fall due for another six weeks."

"But if Blake can't meet it then?" said Tom.

"W ell, it will be vacation, and I'll trouble greasy Benjamin to catch me then."

"But you don't mean to say you won't pay it?" said Tom in horror.

"Pay it! You may trust Benjamin for that. He'll pull round his little usuries somehow."

"Only we have promised to pay on a certain day, you know."

"Oh, of course, that's the form. That only means that he can't pinch us sooner."

"I do hope, though, Drysdale, that it will be paid on the day," said Tom, who could not quite swallow the notion of forfeiting his word, even though it were only a promise to pay to a scoundrel.

"All right. You've nothing to do with it, remember. He won't bother you. Besides, you can plead infancy, if the worst comes to the worst. There's such a queer old bird gone to your friend Hardy's rooms."

"The mention of Hardy broke the disagreeable train of thought into which Tom was falling, and he listened eagerly as Drysdale went on.

"It was about half an hour ago. I was looking out here, and saw an old fellow come hobbling into quad on two sticks, in a shady blue uniform coat and white trousers. The kind of old boy you read about in books, you know. Commodore Trunnion, or Uncle Toby, or one of that sort. Well, I watched him backing and filling about the quad, and trying one staircase and another; but there was nobody about. So down I trotted and went up to him for fun, and to see what he was after. It was as good as a play, if you could have seen it. I was ass enough to take off my cap and make a low bow as I came up to him, and he pulled off his uniform cap in return, and we stood there bowing to one another. He was a thorough old gentleman, and I felt rather foolish for fear that he should see that I expected a lark when I came out. But I don't think he had an idea of it, and only set my capping him down to the wonderful good manners of the college. So we got quite thick, and I piloted him across to Hardy's staircase in the back quad. I wanted him to come up and quench, but he declined, with many apologies. I'm sure he is a character."

"He must be Hardy's father," said Tom.

"I shouldn't wonder. But is his father in the navy?"

"He is a retired captain."

"Then no doubt you're right. What shall we do? Have a hand at picquet. Some men will be here directly. Only for love."

Tom declined the proffered game, and went off soon after to his own rooms, a happier man than he had been since his first night at "The Choughs."

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