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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 21305

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

There are moments in the life of the most self-contained and sober of us all, when we fairly bubble over, like a full bottle of champagne with the cork out; and this was one of them for our hero who however, be it remarked, was neither self-contained nor sober by nature. When they got back to his rooms, he really hardly knew what to do to give vent to his lightness of heart; and Hardy, though self-contained and sober enough in general, was on this occasion almost as bad as his friend. They rattled on, talked out the thing which came uppermost, whatever the subject might chance to be; but whether grave or gay, it always ended after a minute or two in jokes not always good, and chaff, and laughter. The poor captain was a little puzzled at first, and made one or two endeavours to turn the talk into improving channels. But very soon he saw that Jack was thoroughly happy, and that was always enough for him. So he listened to one and the other, joining cheerily in the laugh whenever he could; and when he couldn't catch the joke, looking like a benevolent old lion, and making as much belief that he had understood it all as the simplicity and truthfulness of his character would allow.

The spirits of the two friends seemed inexhaustible. They lasted out the bottle of sherry which Tom had uncorked, and the remains of a bottle of his famous port. He had tried hard to be allowed to open a fresh bottle, but the Captain had made such a point of his not doing so, that he had given in for hospitality's sake. They lasted out the coffee and anchovy toast; after which the Captain made a little effort at moving, which was supplicatingly stopped by Tom.

"Oh, pray don't go, Captain Hardy. I haven't been so happy for months. Besides, I must brew you a glass of grog. I pride myself on my brew. Your son there will tell you that I am a dead hand at it. Here, Wiggins, a lemon!" shouted Tom.

"Well, for once in a way, I suppose, eh, Jack?" said the Captain, looking at his son.

"Oh yes, father. You mayn't know it, Brown, but, if there is one thing harder to do than another, it is to get an old sailor like my father to take a glass of grog at night."

The Captain laughed a little laugh, and shook his thick stick at his son, who went on.

"And as for asking him to take a pipe with it-"

"Dear me," said Tom, "I quite forgot. I really beg your pardon, Captain Hardy; and he put down the lemon he was squeezing, and produced a box of cigars.

"It's all Jack's nonsense, sir," said the Captain, holding out his hand, nevertheless, for the box.

"Now, father, don't be absurd," interrupted Hardy, snatching the box away from him. "You might as well give him a glass of absinthe. He is church-warden at home and can't smoke anything but a long clay."

"I'm very sorry I haven't one here, but I can send out in a minute." And Tom was making for the door to shout for Wiggins.

"No, don't call. I'll fetch some from my rooms."

When Hardy left the room, Tom squeezed away at his lemon, and was preparing himself for a speech to Captain Hardy full of confession and gratitude. But the Captain was before him, and led the conversation into a most unexpected channel.

"I suppose, now, Mr. Brown," he began, "you don't find any difficulty in construing your Thucydides?"

"Indeed, I do, sir," said Tom, laughing. "I find him a very tough old customer, except in the simplest narrative."

"For my part," said the Captain, "I can't get on at all, I find, without a translation. But you see, sir, I had none of the advantages which you young men have up here. In fact, Mr. Brown, I didn't begin Greek till Jack was nearly ten years old." The Captain in his secret heart was prouder of his partial victory over the Greek tongue in his old age, than of his undisputed triumphs over the French in his youth, and was not averse to talking of it.

"I wonder that you ever began it at all, sir," said Tom.

"You wouldn't wonder if you knew how an uneducated man like me feels, when he comes to a place like Oxford."

"Uneducated, sir!" said Tom. "Why your education has been worth twice as much, I'm sure, as any we get here."

"No, sir; we never learnt anything in the navy when I was a youngster, except a little rule-of-thumb mathematics. One picked up a sort of smattering of a language or two knocking about the world, but no grammatical knowledge, nothing scientific. If a boy doesn't get a method, he is beating to windward in a crank craft all his life. He hasn't got any regular place to stow away what he gets into his brains, and so it lies tumbling about in the hold, and he loses it, or it gets damaged and is never ready for use. You see what I mean, Mr. Brown?"

"Yes, sir. But I'm afraid we don't all of us get much method up here. Do you really enjoy reading Thucydides now, Captain Hardy?"

"Indeed I do, sir, very much," said the captain. "There's a great deal in his history to interest an old sailor, you know. I dare say, now, that I enjoy those parts about the sea-fights more than you do." The Captain looked at Tom as if he had made an audacious remark.

"I am sure you do, sir," said Tom, smiling.

"Because you see, Mr. Brown," said the Captain, "when one has been in that sort of thing oneself, one likes to read how people in other times managed, and to think what one would have done in their place. I don't believe that the Greeks just at that time were very resolute fighters, though. Nelson or Collingwood would have finished that war in a year or two."

"Not with triremes, do you think, sir?" said Tom.

"Yes, sir, with any vessels which were to be had," said the Captain. "But you are right about triremes. It has always been a great puzzle to me how those triremes could have been worked. How do you understand the three banks of oars, Mr. Brown?"

"Well, sir, I suppose they must have been one above the other somehow."

"But the upper bank must have had oars twenty feet long, and more, in that case," said the Captain. "You must allow for leverage, you see."

"Of course, sir. When one comes to think of it, it isn't easy to see how they were manned and worked," said Tom.

"Now my notion about triremes-" began the Captain, holding the head of his stick with both hands, and looking across at Tom.

"Why, father!" cried Hardy, returning at the moment with the pipes, and catching the Captain's last word, "on one of your hobby horses already! You're not safe!-I can't leave you for two minutes. Here's a long pipe for you. How in the world did he get on triremes?"

"I hardly know," said Tom; "but I want to hear what Captain Hardy thinks about them. You were saying, sir, that the upper oars must have been twenty feet long at least."

"My notion is-" said the Captain, taking the pipe and tobacco-pouch from his son's hand.

"Stop one moment," said Hardy; "I found Blake at my rooms, and asked him to come over here. You don't object?"

"Object, my dear fellow! I'm much obliged to you. Now, Hardy, would you like to have anyone else? I can send in a minute."

"No one, thank you."

"You won't stand on ceremony now, will you, with me?" said Tom.

"You see I haven't."

"And you never will again?"

"No, never. Now, father, you can heave ahead about those oars."

The Captain went on charging his pipe, and proceeded: "You see, Mr. Brown, they must have been at least twenty feet long, because, if you allow the lowest bank of oars to have been three feet above the water-line, which even Jack thinks they must have been-"

"Certainly. That height at least to do any good," said Hardy.

"Not that I think Jack's opinion worth much on the point," went on his father.

"It's very ungrateful of you, then, to say so, father," said Hardy, "after all the time I've wasted trying to make it all clear to you."

"I don't say that Jack's is not a good opinion on most things, Mr. Brown," said the Captain; "but he is all at sea about triremes. He believes that the men of the uppermost bank rowed somehow like lightermen on the Thames, walking up and down."

"I object to your statement of my faith, father," said Hardy.

"Now you know, Jack, you have said so, often."

"I have said they must have stood up to row, and so-"

"You would have had awful confusion, Jack. You must have order between decks when you're going into action. Besides, the rowers had cushions."

"That old heresy of yours again."

"Well, but Jack, they had cushions. Didn't the rowers who were marched across the Isthmus to man the ships which were to surprise the Piraeus, carry their oars, thongs and cushions?"

"If they did, your conclusion doesn't follow, father, that they sat on them to row."

"You hear, Mr. Brown," said the Captain; "he admits my point about the cushions."

"Oh, father, I hope you used to fight the French more fairly," said Hardy.

"But didn't he? Didn't Jack admit my point?"

"Implicitly, sir, I think," said Tom, catching Hardy's eye, which was dancing with fun.

"Of course he did. You hear that, Jack. Now my notion about triremes-"

A knock at the door interrupted the Captain again, and Blake came in and was introduced.

"Mr. Blake is almost our best scholar, father; you should appeal to him about the cushions."

"I am very proud to make your acquaintance, sir," said the

Captain; "I have heard my son speak of you often."

"We were talking about triremes," said Tom; "Captain Hardy thinks the oars must have been twenty feet long."

"Not easy to come forward well with that sort of oar," said

Blake; "they must have pulled a slow stroke."

"Our torpid would have bumped the best of them," said Hardy.

"I don't think they could have made more than six knots," said the Captain; "but yet they used to sink one another, and a light boat going only six knots couldn't break another in two amid-ships. It's a puzzling subject, Mr. Blake."

"It is, sir," said Mr. Blake; "if we only had some of their fo'castle songs we should know more about it. I'm afraid they had no Dibdin."

"I wish you would turn one of my father's favorite songs into anapaests for him," said Hardy.

"What are they?" said Blake.

"'Tom Bowling,' or 'The wind that blows, and the ship that goes, and the lass that loves a sailor.'"

"By the way, why shouldn't we have a song?" said Tom.

"What do you say, Captain Hardy?"

The Captain winced a little as he saw his chance of expounding his notion as to triremes slipping away, but answered:

"By all means, sir; Jack must sing for me though. Did you ever hear him sing 'Tom Bowling!'"

"No, never, sir. Why, Hardy, you never told me you could


"You never asked me," said Hardy, laughing; "but if I sing for my father, he must spin us a yarn."

"Oh yes; will you, sir!"

"I'll do my best, Mr. Brown; but I don't know that you'll care to listen to my old yarns. Jack thinks everybody must like them as well as he, who used to hear them when he was a child."

"Thank you, sir; that's famous. Now Hardy, strike up."

"After you. You must set the example in your own rooms."

So Tom sang his song. And the noise brought Drysdale and another man up, who were loitering in quad on the lookout for something to do. Drysdale and the Captain recognised one another, and were friends at once. And then Hardy sang "Tom Bowling," in a style which astonished the rest not a little, and as usual nearly made his father cry; and Blake sang, and Drysdale and the other man. And then the Captain was called on for his yarn; and, the general voice being for "something that had happened to him," "the strangest thing that had ever happened to him at sea," the old gentleman laid down his pipe and sat up in his chair with his hands on his stick and began.


It will be forty years ago next month since the ship I was then in came home from the West Indies station, and was paid off. I had nowhere in particular to go just then, and so was very glad to get a letter, the morning after I went ashore at Portsmouth, asking me to go down to Plymouth for a week or so. It came from an old sailor, a friend of my family, who had been Commodore of the fleet. He lived at Plymouth; he was a thorough old sailor-what you young men would call "an old salt"-and couldn't live out of sight of the blue sea and the shipping. It is a disease that a good many of us take who have spent our best years on the sea. I have it myself-a sort of feeling that we want to be under another kind of Providence, when we look out and see a hill on this side and a hill on that. It's wonderful to see the trees come out and the corn grow, but then it doesn't come so home to an old sailor. I know that we're all just as much under the Lord's hand on shore as at sea; but you can't read in a book you haven't been used to, and they that go down to the sea in ships, they see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. It isn't their fault if they don't see his wonders on the land so easily as other people.

But, for all that, there's no man enjoys a cruise in the country more than a sailor. It's forty years ago since I started for Plymouth, but I haven't forgotten the road a bit or how beautiful it was; all through the New Forest, and over Salisbury Plain, and then by the mail to Exeter, and through Devonshire. It took me three days to get to Plymouth, for we didn't get about so quick in those days.

The Commodore was very kind to me when I got there, and I went about with him to the ships in the bay, and through the dock-yard, and picked up a good deal that was of use to me afterwards. I was a lieutenant in those days, and had seen a good deal of service, and I found the old Commodore had a great nephew whom he had adopted, and had set his whole heart upon. He was an old bachelor himself, but the boy had come to live with him, and was to go to sea; so he wanted to put him under some one who would give an eye to him for the first year or two. He was a light slip of a boy then, fourteen years old, with deep set blue eyes and long eyelashes, and cheeks like a girl's, but brave as a lion and as merry as a lark. The old gentleman was very pleased to see that we took to one another. We used to bathe and boat together; and he was never tired of hearing my stories about the great admirals, and the fleet, and the stations I had been on.

Well, it was agreed that I should apply for a ship again directly, and go up to London with a letter to the Admiralty from the Commodore, to help things on. After a month or two I was appointed to a brig, lying at Spithead; and so I wrote off to the Commodore and he got his boy a midshipman's berth on board, and brought him to Portsmouth himself a day or two before we sailed for the Mediterranean. The old gentleman came on board to see the boy's hammock slung, and went below into the cockpit to make sure that all was right. He only left us by the pilot boat when we were well out in the Channel. He was very low at parting with his boy, but bore up as well as he could; and we promised to write to him from Gibraltar, and as often afterwards as we had a chance.

I was soon as proud and fond of little Tom Holdsworth as if he had been my own younger brother; and, for that matter, so were all the crew, from our captain to the cook's boy. He was such a gallant youngster, and yet so gentle. In one cutting-out business we had, he climbed over the boatswain's shoulder, and was almost first on deck; how he came out of it without a scratch I can't think to this day. But he hadn't a bit of bluster in him, and was as kind as a woman to anyone who was wounded or down with sickness.

After we had been out about a year we were sent to cruise off Malta, on the look-out for the French fleet. It was a long business, and the post wasn't so good then as it is now. We were sometimes for months without getting a letter, and knew nothing of what was happening at home, or anywhere else. We had a sick time too on board, and at last he got a fever. He bore up against it like a man, and wouldn't knock off duty for a long time. He was midshipman of my watch; so I used to make him turn in early, and tried to ease things to him as much as I could; but he didn't pick up, and I began to get very anxious about him. I talked to the doctor, and turned matters over in my own mind, and at last I came to think he wouldn't get any better unless he could sleep out of the cockpit. So one night, the 20th of October it was-I remember it well enough, better than I remember any day since; it was a dirty night, blowing half a gale of wind from the southward, and we were under close-reefed top-sails-I had the first watch, and at nine o'clock I sent him down to my cabin to sleep there, where he would be fresher and quieter, and I was to turn into his hammock when my watch was over.

I was on deck three hours or so after he went down, and the weather got dirtier and dirtier, and the scud drove by, and the wind sang and hummed through the rigging-it made me melancholy to listen to it. I could think of nothing but the youngster down below, and what I should say to his poor old uncle if anything happened. Well, soon after midnight I went down and turned into his hammock. I didn't go to sleep at once, for I remember very well listening to the creaking of the ship's timbers as she rose to the swell, and watching the lamp, which was slung from the ceiling, and gave light enough to make out the other hammocks swinging slowly altogether. At last, however, I dropped off, and I reckon I must have been asleep about an hour, when I woke with a start. For the first moment I didn't see anything but the swinging hammocks and the lamp; but then suddenly I became aware that some one was standing by my hammock, and I saw the figure as plainly as I see any one of you now, for the foot of the hammock was close to the lamp, and the light struck full across on the head and shoulders, which was all that I could see of him. There he was, the old Commodore; his grizzled hair coming out from under a red woolen nightcap, and his shoulders wrapped in an old thread-bare blue dressing-gown which I had often seen him in. His face looked pale and drawn, and there was a wistful disappointed look about the eyes. I was so taken aback I could not speak, but lay watching him. He looked full at my face once or twice, but didn't seem to recognise me; and, just as I was getting back my tongue and going to speak, he said slowly: "Where's Tom? this is his hammock. I can't see Tom;" and then he looked vaguely about and passed away somehow, but how, I couldn't see. In a moment or two I jumped out and hurried to my cabin, but young Holdsworth was fast asleep. I sat down, and wrote down just what I had seen, making a note of the exact time, twenty minutes to two. I didn't turn in again, but sat watching the youngster. When he woke I asked him if he had heard anything of his great uncle by the last mail. Yes, he had heard; the old gentleman was rather feeble, but nothing particular the matter. I kept my own counsel and never told a soul in the ship; and, when the mail came to hand a few days afterwards with a letter from the Commodore to his nephew, dated late in September, saying that he was well, I thought the figure by my hammock must have been all my own fancy.

However, by the next mail came the news of the old Commodore's death. It had been a very sudden break up, his executor said. He had left all his property, which was not much, to his great nephew, who was to get leave to come home as soon as he could.

The first time we touched at Malta, Tom Holdsworth left us and went home. We followed about two years afterwards, and the first thing I did after landing was to find out the Commodore's executor. He was a quiet, dry little Plymouth lawyer, and very civilly answered all my questions about the last days of my old friend. At last I asked him to tell me as near as he could the time of his death; and he put on his spectacles, and got his diary, and turned over the leaves. I was quite nervous till he looked up and said,-"Twenty-five minutes to two, sir, A.M., on the morning of October 21st; or it might be a few minutes later."

"How do you mean, sir?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "it is an odd story. The doctor was sitting with me, watching the old man, and, as I tell you, at twenty-five minutes to two, he got up and said it was all over. We stood together, talking in whispers for, it might be, four or five minutes, when the body seemed to move. He was an odd old man, you know, the Commodore, and we never could get him properly to bed, but he lay in his red nightcap and old dressing-gown, with a blanket over him. It was not a pleasant sight, I can tell you, sir. I don't think one of you gentlemen, who are bred to face all manner of dangers, would have liked it. As I was saying, the body first moved, and then sat up, propping itself behind with its hands. The eyes were wide open, and he looked at us for a moment, and said slowly, 'I've been to the Mediterranean, but I didn't see Tom.' Then the body sank back again, and this time the old Commodore was really dead. But it was not a pleasant thing to happen to one, sir. I do not remember anything like it in my forty years' practice."

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