MoboReader > Young Adult > Tom Brown at Oxford

   Chapter 24 THE SCHOOLS.

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 30524

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

There is no more characteristic spot in Oxford than the quadrangle of the schools. Doubtless in the times when the University held and exercised the privileges of infang-thief and outfang-thief, and other such old-world rights, there must have been a place somewhere within the liberties devoted to examinations even more exciting than the great-go. But since alma mater has ceased to take cognizance of "treasons, insurrections, felonies, and mayhem," it is here, in that fateful and inexorable quadrangle, and the buildings which surround it, that she exercises her most potent spells over the spirits of her children. I suppose that a man being tried for his life must be more uncomfortable than an undergraduate being examined for his degree, and that to be hung-perhaps even to be pilloried-must be worse than to be plucked. But after all, the feeling in both cases must be essentially the same, only more intense in the former; and an institution which can examine a man (in literis humanitoribus, in humanities, so called) once a year for two or three days at a time, has nothing to complain of, though it has no longer the power of hanging him at once out of hand.

The schools' quadrangle is for the most part a lonely place. Men pass through the melancholy iron-gates by which that quadrangle is entered on three sides-from Broad street, from the Ratcliff, and from New College-Lane-when necessity leads them that way, with alert step and silently. No nursemaids or children play about it. Nobody lives in it. Only when the examinations are going on you may see a few hooded figures who walk as though conscious of the powers of academic life and death which they wield, and a good deal of shuddering undergraduate life flitting about the place-luckless youths, in white ties and bands, who are undergoing the peine forte et dure with different degrees of composure; and their friends who are there to look after them. You may go in and watch the torture yourself if you are so minded, for the viva voce schools are open to the public. But one such experiment will be enough for you, unless you are very hard-hearted. The sight of the long table, behind which sit Minos, Rhadamanthus & Co., full-robed, stern of face, soft of speech, seizing their victim in turn, now letting him run a little way as a cat does a mouse, then drawing him back, with claw of wily question, probing him on this side and that, turning him inside out,-the row of victims opposite, pale or flushed, of anxious or careless mien, according to temperament, but one and all on the rack as they bend over the allotted paper, or read from the well-thumbed book-the scarcely-less-to-be-pitied row behind of future victims, "sitting for the schools" as it is called, ruthlessly brought hither by statutes, to watch the sufferings they must hereafter undergo-should fill the friend of suffering humanity with thoughts too deep for tears. Through the long day till four o'clock, or later, the torture lasts. Then the last victim is dismissed; the men who are "sitting for the schools" fly all ways to their colleges, silently, in search of relief to their over-wrought feelings-probably also of beer, the undergraduate's universal specific. The beadles close those ruthless doors for a mysterious half-hour on the examiners. Outside in the quadrangle collect by twos and threes the friends of the victims, waiting for the reopening of the door, and the distribution of the "testamurs." The testamurs, lady readers will be pleased to understand, are certificates under the hands of the examiners that your sons, brothers, husbands, perhaps, have successfully undergone the torture. But, if husbands, oh, go not yourselves, and send not your sons to wait for the testamur of the head of your house; for Oxford has seldom seen a sight over which she would more willingly draw the veil, with averted face, than that of the youth rushing wildly, dissolved in tears from the schools' quadrangle, and shouting, "Mamma! papa's plucked! papa's plucked!"

The examination is nearly over which is to decide the academical fate of some of our characters; the paper-work of the candidates for honors has been going on for the last week. Every morning our three St. Ambrose acquaintances have mustered with the rest for the anxious day's work, after such breakfasts as they have been able to eat under the circumstances. They take their work in very different ways. Grey rushes nervously back to his rooms whenever he is out of the schools for ten minutes, to look up dates and dodges. He worries himself sadly over every blunder which he discovers himself to have made, and sits up nearly all night cramming, always hoping for a better to-morrow. Blake keeps up his affected carelessness to the last, quizzing the examiners, laughing over the shots he has been making in the last paper. His shots, it must be said, turn out well for the most part; in the taste paper particularly, as they compare notes, he seems to have almost struck the bull's-eye in his answers to one or two questions which Hardy and Grey have passed over altogether. When he is wide of the mark, he passes it off with some jesting remark; "that a fool can ask in five minutes more questions than a wise man can answer in a week," or wish "that the examiners would play fair, and change sides of the table for an hour with the candidates for a finish." But he, too, though he does it on the sly, is cramming with his coach at every available spare moment. Hardy had finished his reading a full thirty-six hours before the first day of paper-work, and had braced himself for the actual struggle by two good nights' rest and a long day on the river with Tom. He had worked hard from the first, and so had really mastered his books. And now, feeling that he had fairly and honestly done his best, and that if he fails it will be either from bad luck or natural incapacity, and not from his own fault, he manages to keep a cooler head than any of his companions in trouble.

The week's paper-work passed off uneventfully; then comes the viva voce work for the candidates for honors. They go in, in alphabetical order, four a day, for one more day's work, the hardest of all, and then there is nothing more to do but wait patiently for the class list. On these days there is a good attendance in the enclosed space to which the public are admitted. The front seats are often occupied by the private tutors of the candidates, who are there, like Newmarket trainers, to see the performance of their stables, marking how each colt bears pressing, and comports himself when the pinch comes. They watch the examiners, too, carefully to see what line they take, whether science or history, or scholarship is likely to tell most, that they may handle the rest of their starts accordingly. Behind them, for the most part on the hindermost benches of the flight of raised steps, anxious younger brothers and friends sit, for a few minutes at a time, flitting in and out in much unrest, and making the objects of their solicitude more nervous than ever by their sympathy.

It is now the afternoon of the second day of the viva voce examinations in honors. Blake is one of the men in. His tutor, Hardy, Grey, Tom, and other St. Ambrose men, have all been in the schools more or less during his examination, and now Hardy and Tom are waiting outside the doors for the issuing of the testamurs.

The group is small enough. It is so much of course that a class-man should get his testamur that there is no excitement about it; generally the man himself stops to receive it.

The only anxious faces in the group are Tom's and Hardy's. They have not exchanged a word for the last few minutes in their short walk before the door. Now the examiners come out and walk away towards their colleges, and the next minute the door again opens and the clerk of the schools appears with a slip of paper in his hand.

"Now you'll see if I am not right," said Hardy, as they gathered to the door with the rest. "I tell you there isn't the least chance for him."

The clerk read out the names inscribed on the testamurs which he held, and handed them to the owners.

"Haven't you one for Mr. Blake of St. Ambrose?" said Tom desperately as the clerk was closing the door.

"No, sir; none but those I have just given out," answered the clerk, shaking his head. The door closed, and they turned away in silence for the first minute.

"I told you how it would be," said Hardy, as they passed out of the south gate into the Ratcliff Quadrangle.

"But he seemed to be doing so well when I was in."

"You were not there at the time. I thought at first they would have sent him out of the schools at once."

"In his divinity, wasn't it?"

"Yes; he was asked to repeat one of the Articles, and didn't know three words of it. From that moment I saw it was all over. The examiner and he both lost their tempers, and it went from bad to worse, till the examiner remarked that he could have answered one of the questions he was asking when he was ten years old, and Blake replied, so could he. They gave him a paper in divinity afterwards, but you could see there was no chance for him."

"Poor fellow! what will he do, do you think? How will he take it?"

"I can' tell. But I'm afraid it will be a very serious matter for him. He was the ablest man in our year too. What a pity."

They got into St. Ambrose just as the bell for afternoon chapel was going down, and went in. Blake was there, and one look showed him what had happened. In fact he had expected nothing else all day since his breakdown in the Articles. Tom couldn't help watching him during chapel; and afterwards, on that evening, acknowledged to a friend that whatever else you might think of Blake, there was no doubt about his gameness.

After chapel he loitered outside the door in the quadrangle, talking just as usual, and before hall he loitered on the steps in well-feigned carelessness. Everybody else was thinking of his breakdown; some with real sorrow and sympathy; others as of any other nine days' wonder-pretty much as if the favourite for the Derby had broken down; others with ill-concealed triumph, for Blake had many enemies amongst the men. He himself was conscious enough of what they were thinking, but maintained his easy, gay manner through it all, though the effort it cost him was tremendous. The only allusion he made to what had happened which Tom heard was when he asked him to wine.

"Are you engaged to-night, Brown?" he said. Tom answered in the negative. "Come to me, then" he went on. "You won't get another chance in St. Ambrose. I have a few bottles of old wine left; we may as well floor them; they won't bear moving to a hall with their master."

And then he turned to some other men and asked them, everyone in fact who he came across, especially the dominant fast set with whom he had chiefly lived. These young gentlemen (of whom we had a glimpse at the outset, but whose company we have carefully avoided ever since, seeing that their sayings and doings were of a kind of which the less said the better) had been steadily going on in their way, getting more and more idle, reckless and insolent. Their doings had been already so scandalous on several occasions as to call for solemn meetings of the college authorities; but, no vigorous measures having followed, such deliberations had only made matters worse, and given the men a notion that they could do what they pleased with impunity. This night the climax had come; it was as though the flood of misrule had at last broken banks and overflowed the whole college.

For two hours the wine party in Blake's large ground-floor rooms was kept up with a wild, reckless mirth, in keeping with the host's temper. Blake was on his mettle. He had asked every man with whom he had a speaking acquaintance, as if he wished to face out his disaster at once to the whole world. Many of the men came feeling uncomfortable, and would sooner have stayed away and treated the pluck as real misfortune. But after all Blake was the best judge of how he liked to be treated, and, if he had a fancy for giving a great wine on the occasion, the civilest thing to do was to get to it. And so they went, and wondered as much as he could desire at the brilliant coolness of their host, speculating and doubting nevertheless in their own secret hearts whether it wasn't acting after all. Acting it was, no doubt, and not worth the doing; no acting is. But one must make allowances. No two men take a thing just alike, and very few can sit down quietly when they have lost a fall in life's wrestle, and say: "Well, here I am, beaten no doubt this time. But my own fault, too. Now, take a good look at me, my good friends, as I know you all want to do, and say your say out, for I mean getting up again directly and having another turn at it."

Blake drank freely himself, and urged his guests to drink, which was a superfluous courtesy for the most part. Many of the men left his room considerably excited. They had dispersed for an hour or so to billiards, or a stroll in the town, and at ten o'clock reassembled at supper parties, of which there were several in college this evening, especially a monster one at Chanter's rooms-a "champagne supper," as he had carefully and ostentatiously announced on the cards of invitation.

This flaunting the champagne in their faces had been resented by Drysdale and others, who drank his champagne in tumblers, and then abused it and clamored for beer in the middle of the supper. Chanter, whose prodigality in some ways was only exceeded by his general meanness, had lost his temper at this demand, and insisted that, if they wanted beer, they might send for it themselves, for he wouldn't pay for it. This protest was treated with uproarious contempt, and gallons of ale soon made their appearance in college jugs and tankards. The tables were cleared, and songs (most of them of more than doubtful character), cigars, and all sorts of compounded drinks, from claret cup to egg flip, succeeded. The company, recruited constantly as men came into the college, was getting more and more excited every minute. The scouts cleared away and carried off the relics of the supper, and then left; still the revel went on, till, by midnight, the men were ripe for any mischief or folly which those among them who retained any brains at all could suggest. The signal for breaking up was given by the host's falling from his seat.

Some of the men rose with a shout to put him to bed, which they accomplished with difficulty, after dropping him several times, and left him to snore off the effects of his debauch with one of his boots on. Others took to doing what mischief occurred to them in his rooms. One man mounted on a chair with a cigar in his mouth which had gone out, was employed in pouring the contents of a champagne bottle with unsteady hand into the clock on the mantel-piece. Chanter was a particular man in this sort of furniture, and his clock was rather a specialty. It was a large bronze figure of Atlas, supporting the globe in the shape of a time-piece. Unluckily, the maker, not anticipating the sort of test to which his work would b

e subjected, had ingeniously left the hole for winding up in the top of the clock, so that unusual facilities existed for drowning the world-carrier, and he was already almost at his last tick. One or two men were morally aiding and abetting, and physically supporting the experimenter on clocks, who found it difficult to stand to his work by himself. Another knot of young gentlemen stuck to the tables, and so continued to shout out scraps of song, sometimes standing on their chairs, and sometimes tumbling off them. Another set were employed on the amiable work of pouring beer and sugar into three new pairs of polished leather dress boots, with colored tops to them, which they discovered in the dressing-room. Certainly, as they remarked, Chanter could have no possible use for so many dress boots at once, and it was a pity the beer should be wasted; but on the whole, perhaps, the materials were never meant for combination, and had better have been kept apart. Others had gone away to break into the kitchen, headed by one who had just come into college and vowed he would have some supper; and others, to screw up an unpopular tutor, or to break into the rooms of some inoffensive freshman. The remainder mustered on the grass in the quadrangle, and began playing leap-frog and larking one another. Amongst these last was our hero, who had been at Blake's wine and one of the quieter supper parties; and, though not so far gone as most of his companions, was by no means in a state in which he would have cared to meet the Dean. He lent his hearty aid accordingly to swell the noise and tumult, which was becoming something out of the way even for St. Ambrose's. As the leap-frog was flagging, Drysdale suddenly appeared carrying some silver plates which were used on solemn occasions in the common room, and allowed to be issued on special application for gentlemen-commoners' parties. A rush was made towards him.

"Halloa, here's Drysdale with lots of swag," shouted one.

"What are you going to do with it?" cried another.

Drysdale paused a moment with the peculiarly sapient look of a tipsy man who has suddenly lost the thread of his ideas, and then suddenly broke out with-

"Hang it! I forgot. But let's play at quoits with them."

The proposal was received with applause, and the game began, but Drysdale soon left it. He had evidently some notion in his head which would not suffer him to turn to anything else till he had carried it out. He went off accordingly to Chanter's rooms, while the quoits went on in the front quadrangle.

About this time, however, the Dean and bursar, and the tutors who lived in college, began to be conscious that something unusual was going on. They were quite used to distant choruses, and great noises in the men's rooms, and to a fair amount of shouting and skylarking in the quadrangle, and were long-suffering men, not given to interfering, but there must be an end to all endurance, and the state of things which had arrived could no longer be met by a turn in bed and a growl at the uproars and follies of undergraduates.

Presently some of the rioters on the grass caught sight of a figure gliding along the side quadrangle towards the Dean's staircase. A shout arose that the enemy was up, but little heed was paid to it by the greater number. Then another figure passed from the Dean's staircase to the porter's lodge. Those of the men who had any sense left saw that it was time to quit, and, after warning the rest, went off towards their rooms. Tom, on his way to his staircase, caught sight of a figure seated in a remote corner of the inner quadrangle, and made for it, impelled by natural curiosity. He found Drysdale seated on the ground with several silver tankards by his side, employed to the best of his powers in digging a hole with one of the college carving-knives.

"Halloa, Drysdale! what are you up to?" he shouted, laying his hand on his shoulder.

"Providing for posterity," replied Drysdale, gravely, without looking up.

"What the deuce do you mean? Don't be such an ass. The Dean will be out in a minute. Get up and come along."

"I tell you, old fellow," said Drysdale, somewhat inarticulately, and driving his knife into the ground again, "the dons are going to spout the college plate. So I am burying these articles for poshterity-"

"Hang posterity," said Tom; "come along directly, or you'll be caught and rusticated."

"Go to bed, Brown-you're drunk, Brown," replied Drysdale, continuing his work, and striking the carving-knife into the ground so close to his own thigh that it made Tom shudder.

"Here they are then," he cried the next moment, seizing Drysdale by the arm, as a rush of men came through the passage into the quadrangle, shouting and tumbling along, and making in small groups for the different stair-cases. The Dean and two of the tutors followed, and the porter bearing a lantern. There was no time to be lost; so Tom, after one more struggle to pull Drysdale up and hurry him off, gave it up, and leaving him to his fate, ran across to his own staircase.

For the next half-hour the Dean and his party patrolled the college, and succeeded at the last in restoring order, though not without some undignified and disagreeable passages. The lights on the staircases, which generally burnt all night, were of course put out as they approached. On the first staircase which they stormed, the porter's lantern was knocked out of his hand by an unseen adversary, and the light put out on the bottom stairs. On the first landing the bursar trod on a small terrier belonging to a fast freshman, and the dog naturally thereupon bit the bursar's leg; while his master and other enfants perdus, taking advantage of the diversion, rushed down the dark stairs, past the party of order, and into the quadrangle, where they scattered amidst a shout of laughter. While the porter was gone for a light, the Dean and his party rashly ventured on a second ascent. Here an unexpected catastrophy awaited them. On the top landing lived one of the steadiest men in college, whose door had been tried shortly before. He had been roused out of his first sleep, and, vowing vengeance on the next comers, stood behind his oak, holding his brown George, or huge earthenware receptacle, half full of dirty water, in which his bed-maker had been washing up his tea-things. Hearing stealthy steps and whisperings on the stairs below, he suddenly threw open his oak, discharging the whole contents of his brown George on the approaching authorities, with a shout of, "Take that for your skulking."

The exasperated Dean and tutors rushing on, seized their astonished and innocent assailant, and after receiving explanations, and the offer of clean towels, hurried off again after the real enemy. And now the porter appeared again with a light, and, continuing their rounds, they apprehended and disarmed Drysdale, collected the college plate, marked down others of the rioters, visited Chanter's rooms, held a parley with the one of their number who was screwed up in his rooms, and discovered that the bars had been wrenched out of the kitchen window. After which they retired to sleep on their indignation, and quiet settled down again on the ancient and venerable college.

The next morning at chapel many of the revellers met; in fact, there was a fuller attendance than usual, for every one felt that something serious must be impending. After such a night the dons must make a stand, or give up altogether. The most reckless only of the fast set were absent. St. Cloud was there, dressed even more precisely than usual, and looking as if he were in the habit of going to bed at ten, and had never heard of milk punch. Tom turned out not much the worse himself, but in his heart feeling not a little ashamed of the whole business; of the party, the men, but, above all, of himself. He thrust the shame back, however, as well as he could, and put a cool face on it. Probably most of the men were in much the same state of mind. Even in St. Ambrose's, reckless and vicious as the college had become, by far the greater part of the undergraduates would gladly have seen a change in the direction of order and decency, and were sick of the wretched license of doing right in their own eyes and wrong in every other person's.

As the men trooped out of chapel, they formed in corners of the quadrangle, except the reading set, who went off quietly to their rooms. There was a pause of a minute or two. Neither principal, dean, tutor, nor fellow followed as on ordinary occasions. "They're hatching something in the outer chapel," said one.

"It'll be a coarse time for Chanter, I take it," said another.

"Was your name sent to the buttery for his supper?"

"No, I took d-d good care of that," said St. Cloud, who was addressed.

"Drysdale was caught, wasn't he?"

"So I hear, and nearly frightened the Dean and the porter out of their wits by staggering after them with a carving-knife."

"He'll be sacked, of course."

"Much he'll care for that."

"Here they come, then; by Jove, how black they look!"

The authorities now came out of the antechapel door, and walked slowly across towards the Principal's house in a body. At this moment, as ill-luck would have it, Jack trotted into the front quadrangle, dragging after him the light steel chain, with which he was usually fastened up in Drysdale's scout's room at night. He came innocently towards one and another of the groups, and retired from each much astonished at the low growl with which his acquaintance was repudiated on all sides.

"Porter, whose dog is that?" said the Dean catching sight of him.

"Mr. Drysdale's dog, sir, I think, sir," answered the porter.

"Probably the animal who bit me last night," said the bursar. His knowledge of dogs was small; if Jack had fastened on him, he would probably have been in bed from the effects.

"Turn the dog out of college," said the Dean.

"Please, sir he's a very savage dog, sir," said the porter, whose respect for Jack was unbounded.

"Turn him out immediately," replied the Dean.

The wretched porter, arming himself with a broom, approached Jack, and after some coaxing, managed to catch hold of the end of his chain, and began to lead him towards the gates, carefully holding out the broom towards Jack's nose with his other hand to protect himself. Jack at first hauled away at his chain, and then began circling round the porter at the full extent of it, evidently meditating an attack. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the situation, the ludicrous alarm of the porter set the men laughing.

"Come along, or Jack will be pinning the wretched Copas," said Jervis; and he and Tom stepped up to the terrified little man, and, releasing him, led Jack, who knew them both well, out of college.

"Were you at that supper party?" said Jervis, as they deposited Jack with an ostler, who was lounging outside the gates, to be taken to Drysdale's stables.

"No," said Tom.

"I'm glad to hear it; there will be a pretty clean sweep after last night's doings."

"But I was in the quadrangle when they came out."

"Not caught, eh?" said Jervis.

"No, luckily, I got to my own rooms at once."

"Were any of the crew caught?"

"Not that I know of."

"Well, we shall hear enough of it before lecture time."

Jervis was right. There was a meeting in the common room directly after breakfast. Drysdale, anticipating his fate, took his name off before they sent for him. Chanter and three or four others were rusticated for a year, and Blake was ordered to go down at once. He was a scholar, and what was to be done in his case would be settled at the meeting at the end of the term.

For twenty-four hours it was supposed that St. Cloud had escaped altogether; but at the end of that time he was summoned before a meeting in the common room. The tutor whose door had been so effectually screwed up that he had been obliged to get out of his window by a ladder to attend morning chapel, proved wholly unable to appreciate the joke, and set himself to work to discover the perpetrators of it. The door was fastened with long gimlets, which had been screwed firmly in, and when driven well home, their heads knocked off. The tutor collected the shafts of the gimlets from the carpenter, who came to effect an entry for him; and, after careful examination discovered the trade mark, So, putting them into his pocket, he walked off into the town, and soon came back with the information he required, which resulted in the rustication of St. Cloud, an event which was borne by the college with the greatest equanimity.

Shortly afterwards, Tom attended in the schools' quadrangle again, to be present at the posting of the class list. This time there were plenty of anxious faces; the quadrangle was full of them. He felt almost as nervous himself as if he were waiting for the third gun. He thrust himself forward, and was amongst the first who caught sight of the document. One look was enough for him, and the next moment he was off at full speed for St. Ambrose, and, rushing headlong into Hardy's rooms, seized him by the hand and shook it vehemently.

"It's all right, old fellow," he cried, as soon as he could catch his breath; "it's all right. Four firsts; you're one of them; well done!"

"And Grey, where's he; is he all right?"

"Bless me, I forgot to look," said Tom; "I only read the firsts, and then came off as hard as I could."

"Then he is not a first."

"No; I'm sure of that."

"I must go and see him; he deserved it far more than I."

"No, by Jove, old boy," said Tom, seizing him again by the hand, "that he didn't; nor any man that ever went into the schools."

"Thank you, Brown," said Hardy, returning his warm grip. "You do one good. Now to see poor Grey, and to write to my dear old father before hall. Fancy him opening the letter at breakfast the day after to-morrow! I hope it won't hurt him."

"Never, fear. I don't believe in people dying of joy, and anything short of sudden death he won't mind at the price."

Hardy hurried off, and Tom went to his own rooms, and smoked a cigar to allay his excitement, and thought about his friend, and all they had felt together, and laughed and mourned over in the short months of their friendship. A pleasant, dreamy half-hour he spent thus, till the hall bell roused him, and he made his toilette and went to his dinner.

It was with very mixed feelings that Hardy walked by the servitors' table and took his seat with the bachelors, an equal at last amongst equals. No man who is worth his salt can leave a place where he has gone through hard and searching discipline, and been tried in the very depths of his heart, without regret, however much he may have winced under the discipline. It is no light thing to fold up and lay by forever a portion of one's life even when it can be laid by with honor and in thankfulness.

But it was with no mixed feelings, but with a sense of entire triumph and joy, that Tom watched his friend taking his new place, and the dons, one after another, coming up and congratulating him, and treating him as the man who had done honor to them and his college.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top