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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 28382

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

The evening of Show Sunday may serve as a fair sample of what this eventful Commemoration was to our hero. The constant intercourse with ladies-with such ladies as Miss Winter and Mary-young, good-looking, well spoken, and creditable in all ways, was very delightful, and the more fascinating, from the sudden change which their presence wrought in the ordinary mode of life of the place. They would have been charming in any room, but were quite irrepressible in his den, which no female presence, except that of his blowsy old bed-maker, had lightened since he had been in possession. All the associations of the fresh-man's room were raised at once. When he came in at night now, he could look sentimentally at his arm chair (christened "The Captain," after Captain Hardy), on which Katie had sat to make breakfast; or at the brass peg on the door, on which Mary had hung her bonnet and shawl, after displacing his gown. His very teacups and saucers, which were already a miscellaneous set of several different patterns, had made a move almost into his affections; at least the two-one brown, one blue-which the young ladies had used. A human interest belonged to them now, and they were no longer mere crockery. He had thought of buying two very pretty china ones, the most expensive he could find in Oxford, and getting them to use these for the first time, but rejected the idea. The fine new ones, he felt, would never be the same to him. They had come in and used his own rubbish; that was the great charm. If he had been going to give them cups, no material would have been beautiful enough; but for his own use after them, the commoner the better. The material was nothing, the association everything. It is marvellous the amount of healthy sentiment of which a naturally soft-hearted undergraduate is capable by the end of the summer term. But sentiment is not all one-sided. The delights which spring from sudden intimacy with the fairest and best part of the creation, are as far above those of the ordinary, unmitigated undergraduate life, as the British citizen of 1860 is above the rudimentary personage in prehistoric times from whom he has been gradually improved up to his present state of enlightenment and perfection. But each state has also its own troubles as well as its pleasures; and, though the former are a price which no decent fellow would boggle at for a moment, it is useless to pretend that paying them is pleasant.

Now, at Commemoration, as elsewhere, where men do congregate, if your lady-visitors are not pretty or agreeable enough to make your friends and acquaintances eager to know them, and to cater for their enjoyment, and try in all ways to win their favor and cut you out, you have the sat isfaction at any rate of keeping them to yourself, though you lose the pleasures which arise from being sought after, and made much of for their sakes, and feeling raised above the ruck of your neighbors. On the other hand, if they are all like this, you might as well try to keep the sunshine and air to yourself. Universal human nature rises up against you; and besides, they will not stand it themselves. And, indeed, why should they? Women, to be very attractive to all sorts of different people, must have great readiness of sympathy. Many have it naturally, and many work hard in acquiring a good imitation of it. In the first case it is against the nature of such persons to be monopolized for more than a very short time; in the second, all their trouble would be thrown away if they allowed themselves to be monopolized. Once in their lives, indeed, they will be, and ought to be, and that monopoly lasts, or should last, forever; but instead of destroying in them that which was their great charm, it only deepens and widens it, and the sympathy which was before fitful, and, perhaps, wayward, flows on in a calm and healthy stream, blessing and cheering all who come within reach of its exhilarating and life-giving waters.

But man of all ages is a selfish animal, and unreasonable in his selfishness. It takes every one of us in turn many a shrewd fall in our wrestlings with the world, to convince us that we are not to have everything our own way. We are conscious in our inmost souls that man is the rightful lord of creation; and, starting from this eternal principle, and ignoring, each man-child of us in turn, the qualifying truth that it is to man in general, including women, and not to Thomas Brown in particular, that the earth has been given, we set about asserting our kingships each in his own way, and proclaiming ourselves kings from our little ant-hills of thrones. And then come the strugglings and the down-fallings, and some of us learn our lesson, and some learn it not. But what lesson? That we have been dreaming in the golden hours when the vision of a kingdom rose before us? That there is in short no kingdom at all, or that, if there be, we are no heirs of it?

No-I take it that, while we make nothing better than that out of our lesson, we shall have to go on spelling at it and stumbling over it, through all the days of our life, till we make our last stumble, and take our final header out of this riddle of a world, which we once dreamed we were to rule over, exclaiming "vanitas vanitatum" to the end. But man's spirit will never be satisfied without a kingdom, and was never intended to be satisfied so; and One wiser than Solomon tells us day by day that our kingdom is about us here, and that we may rise up and pass in when we will at the shining gates which He holds open, for that it is His, and we are joint heirs of it with Him.

On the whole, however, making allowances for all drawbacks, those Commemoration days were the pleasantest days Tom had ever known at Oxford. He was with his uncle and cousins early and late, devising all sorts of pleasant entertainments and excursions for them, introducing all the pleasantest men of his acquaintance and taxing the resources of the college, which at such times were available for undergraduates as well as their betters, to minister to their comfort and enjoyment. And he was well repaid. There was something perfectly new to the ladies, and very piquaut in the life and habits of the place. They found it very diverting to be receiving in Tom's rooms, presiding over his breakfasts and luncheons, altering the position of his furniture, and making the place look as pretty as circumstances would allow. Then there was pleasant occupation for every spare hour, and the fetes and amusements were all unlike everything but themselves. Of course the ladies at once became enthusiastic St. Ambrosians, and managed in spite of all distractions to find time for making up rosettes and bows of blue and white, in which to appear at the procession of the boats, which was the great event of the Monday. Fortunately Mr. Winter had been a good oar in his day, and had pulled in one of the first four-oars in which the University races had commenced some thirty-five years before; and Tom, who had set his mind on managing his uncle, worked him up almost into enthusiasm and forgetfulness of his maladies, so that he raised no objection to a five o'clock dinner, and an adjournment to the river almost immediately afterwards. Jervis, who was all-powerful on the river, at Tom's instigation got an arm-chair for him in the best part of the University barge, while the ladies, after walking along the bank with Tom and others of the crew, and being instructed in the colors of the different boats, and the meaning of the ceremony, took their places in the front row on the top of the barge, beneath the awning and the flags, and looked down with hundreds of other fair strangers on the scene, which certainly merited all that Tom had said of it on faith.

The barges above and below the University barge, which occupied the post of honor, were also covered with ladies, and Christchurch Meadow swarmed with gay dresses and caps and gowns. On the opposite side the bank was lined with a crowd in holiday clothes, and the punts plied across without intermission loaded with people, till the groups stretched away down the towing path in an almost continuous line to the starting place. Then one after another of the racing-boats, all painted and polished up for the occasion, with the college flags drooping at their sterns, put out and passed down to their stations, and the bands played, and the sun shone his best. And then, after a short pause of expectation, the distant bank became all alive, and the groups all turned one way, and came up the towing path again, and the foremost boat with the blue and white flag shot through the Gut and came up the reach, followed by another, and another, and another, till they were tired of counting, and the leading boat was already close to them before the last had come within sight. And the bands played up all together, and the crowd on both sides cheered as the St. Ambrose boat spurted from the Cherwell, and took the place of honor at the winning-post, opposite the University barge, and close under where they were sitting.

"Oh, look, Katie dear; here they are. There's Tom, and Mr. Hardy, and Mr. Jervis;" and Mary waved her handkerchief and clapped her hands, and was in an ecstasy of enthusiasm, in which her cousin was no whit behind her. The gallant crew of St. Ambrose were by no means unconscious of, and fully appreciated, the compliment.

Then the boats passed up one by one; and, as each came opposite to the St. Ambrose boat, the crews tossed their oars and cheered, and the St. Ambrose crew tossed their oars and cheered in return; and the whole ceremony went off in triumph, notwithstanding the casualty which occurred to one of the torpids. The torpids, being filled with the refuse of the rowing men-generally awkward or very young oarsmen-find some difficulty in the act of tossing-no safe operation for an unsteady crew. Accordingly, the torpid in question, having sustained her crew gallantly till the saluting point, and allowed them to get their oars fairly into the air, proceeded gravely to turn over on her side, and shoot them out into the stream.

A thrill ran along the top of the barges, and a little scream or two might have been heard even through the notes of "Annie Laurie", which were filling the air at the moment; but the band played on, and the crew swam ashore, and two of the punt-men laid hold of the boat and collected the oars, and nobody seemed to think anything of it.

Katie drew a long breath.

"Are they all out, dear?" she said; "can you see? I can only count eight."

"Oh, I was too frightened to look. Let me see; yes, there are nine; there's one by himself, the little man pulling the weeds off his trousers."

And so they regained their equanimity, and soon after left the barge, and were escorted to the hall of St. Ambrose by the crew, who gave an entertainment there to celebrate the occasion, which Mr. Winter was induced to attend and pleased to approve, and which lasted till it was time to dress for the ball, for which a proper chaperone had been providentially found. And so they passed the days and nights of Commemoration.

But is not within the scope of this work to chronicle all their doings-how, notwithstanding balls at night, they were up to chapel in the morning, and attended flower-shows at Worcester and musical promenades in New College, and managed to get down the river for a picnic at Nuneham, besides seeing everything that was worth seeing in all the colleges. How it was done, no man can tell; but done it was, and they seemed only the better for it all. They were waiting at the gates of the Theatre amongst the first, tickets in hand, and witnessed the whole scene, wondering no little at the strange mixture of solemnity and license, the rush and crowding of the undergraduates into their gallery, and their free and easy way of taking the whole proceedings under their patronage, watching every movement in the amphitheatre and on the floor, and shouting approval and disapproval of the heads of their republic of learning, or of the most illustrious visitors, or cheering with equal vigor, the ladies, Her Majesty's ministers, or the prize poems.

It is a strange scene certainly, and has probably puzzled many persons besides young ladies. One can well fancy the astonishment of the learned foreigner, for instance, when he sees the head of the University, which he has reverenced at a distance from his youth up, rise in his robes in solemn convocation to exercise one of the highest of University functions, and hears his sonorous Latin periods interrupted by "three cheers for the ladies in pink bonnets!" or, when some man is introduced for an honorary degree, whose name may be known throughout the civilized world, and the Vice-Chancellor, turning to his compeers, inquires, "Placetne vobis, domini doctores? placetne vobis, magistri?" and he hears the voice of doctors and masters drowned in contradictory shouts from the young demus in the gallery, "Who is he?" "Non placet!" "Placet!" "Why does he carry an umbrella?" It is thoroughly English, and that is just all that need, or indeed can, be said for it all; but not one in a hundred of us would alter it if we could, beyond suppressing some of the personalities, which of late years have gone somewhat too far.

After the Theatre there was sumptuous lunch in All Souls', and then a fete in St. John's Gardens. Now, at the aforesaid luncheon, Tom's feelings had been severely tried; in fact, the little troubles, which, as has been before hinted, are incident to persons, especially young men in his fortunate predicament, had here come to a head.

He was separated from his cousin a little way. Being a guest, and not an important one in the eyes of the All Souls' fellows, he had to find his level, which was very much below that allotted to his uncle and cousins. In short, he felt that they were taking him about, instead of he them-which change of position was in itself trying; and Mary's conduct fanned his slumbering discontent into a flame. There she was, sitting between a fellow of All Souls', who was a collector of pictures

and an authority in fine art matters, and the Indian officer who had been so recently promoted to the degree of D.C.L. in the Theatre. There she sat, so absorbed in their conversation that she did not even hear a remark which he was pleased to address to her.

Whereupon he began to brood on his wrongs, and to take umbrage at the catholicity of her enjoyment and enthusiasm. So long as he had been the medium through which she was brought in contact with others, he had been well enough content that they should amuse and interest her; but it was a very different thing now.

So he watched her jealously, and raked up former conversations, and came to the conclusion that it was his duty to remonstrate with her. He had remarked, too, that she never could talk with him now without breaking away after a short time into badinage. Her badinage certainly was very charming and pleasant, and kept him on the stretch; but why should she not let him be serious and sentimental when he pleased? She did not break out in this manner with other people. So he really felt it to be his duty to speak to her on the subject-not in the least for his own sake, but for hers.

Accordingly, when the party broke up, and they started for the fete at St. John's, he resolved to carry out his intentions. At first he could not get an opportunity while they were walking about on the beautiful lawn of the great garden, seeing and being seen, and listening to music, and looking at choice flowers. But soon a chance offered. She stayed behind the rest without noticing it, to examine some specially beautiful plant, and he was by her side in a moment, and proposed to show her the smaller garden, which lies beyond, to which she innocently consented; and they were soon out of the crowd, and in comparative solitude.

She remarked that he was somewhat silent and grave, but thought nothing of it, and chatted on as usual, remarking upon the pleasant company she had been in at luncheon.

This opened the way for Tom's lecture.

"How easily you seem to get interested with new people!" he began.

"Do I?" she said. "Well, don't you think it very natural?"

"Wouldn't it be a blessing if people would always say just what they think and mean, though?"

"Yes, and a great many do," she replied, looking at him in some wonder, and not quite pleased with the turn things were taking.

"Any ladies, do you think? You know we haven't many opportunities of observing."

"Yes, I think quite as many ladies as men. More, indeed, as far as my small experience goes."

"You really maintain deliberately that you have met people-men and women-who can talk to you or anyone else for a quarter of an hour quite honestly, and say nothing at all which they don't mean-nothing for the sake of flattery, or effect, for instance?"

"Oh dear me, yes, often."

"Who, for example?"

"Our cousin Katie. Why are you so suspicious and misanthropical?

There is your friend Mr. Hardy again; what do you say to him?"

"Well, I think you may have hit on an exception. But I maintain the rule."

"You look as if I ought to object. But I sha'n't. It is no business of mine if you choose to believe any such disagreeable thing about your fellow-creatures."

"I don't believe anything worse about them than I do about myself. I know that I can't do it."

"Well, I am very sorry for you."

"But I don't think I am any worse than my neighbours."

"I don't suppose you do. Who are your neighbors?"

"Shall I include you in the number?"

"Oh, by all means, if you like."

"But I may not mean that you are like the rest. The man who fell among thieves, you know, had one good neighbor."

"Now, Cousin Tom," she said, looking up with sparkling eyes, "I can't return the compliment. You meant to make me feel that I was like the rest-at least like what you say they are. You know you did. And now you are just turning round, and trying to slip out of it by saying what you don't mean."

"Well, Cousin Mary, perhaps I was. At any rate I was a great fool for my pains. I might have known by this time that you would catch me out fast enough."

"Perhaps you might. I didn't challenge you to set up your Palace of Truth. But, if we are to live in it, you are not to say all the disagreeable things and hear none of them."

"I hope not, if they must be disagreeable. But why should they be? I can't see why you and I, for instance, should not say exactly what we are thinking to one another without being disagreeable."

"Well, I don't think you made a happy beginning just now."

"But I am sure we should all like one another the better for speaking the truth."

"Yes; but I don't admit that I haven't been speaking the truth."

"You won't understand me. Have I said that you don't speak the truth?"

"Yes, you said just now that I don't say what I think and mean. Well, perhaps you didn't exactly say that, but that is what you meant:"

"You are very angry, Cousin Mary. Let us wait till-"

"No, no. It was you who began, and I will not let you off now."

"Very well, then. I did mean something of the sort. It is better to tell you than to keep it to myself."

"Yes; and now tell me your reasons," said Mary, looking down and biting her lip. Tom was ready to bite his tongue off, but there was nothing now but to go through with it.

"You make everybody that comes near you think that you are deeply interested in them and their doings. Poor Grey believes that you are as mad as he is about rituals and rubrics. And the boating men declare that you would sooner see a race than go to the best ball in the world. And you listened to the Dean's stale old stories about his schools, and went into raptures in the Bodleian about pictures and art with that follow of All Souls'. Even our old butler and the cook-"

Here Mary, despite her vexation, after a severe struggle to control it, burst into a laugh, which made Tom pause.

"Now you can't say that I am not really fond of jellies," she said.

"And you can't say that I have said anything so very disagreeable."

"Oh, but you have, though."

"At any rate I have made you laugh."

"But you didn't mean to do it. Now, go on."

"I have nothing more to say. You see my meaning, or you never will."

"If you have nothing more to say, you should not have said so much," said Mary. "You wouldn't have me rude to all the people I meet, and I can't help it if the cook thinks I am a glutton."

"But you could help letting Grey think that you should like to go and see his night schools."

"But I should like to see them of all things."

"And I suppose you would like to go through the manuscripts in the Bodleian with the Dean. I heard you talking to him as if it was the dearest wish of your heart, and making a half engagement to go with him this afternoon, when, you know that you are tired to death of him, and so full of other engagements that you don't know where to turn."

Mary began to bite her lips again. She felt half inclined to cry, and half inclined to get up and box his ears. However she did neither, but looked up after a moment or two and said-

"Well, have you any more unkind words to say?"

"Unkind, Mary?"

"Yes, they are unkind. How can I enjoy anything now when I shall know you are watching me, and thinking all sorts of harm of everything I say and do? However, it doesn't much matter, for we go to-morrow morning."

"But you will give me credit at least for meaning you well."

"I think you are very jealous and suspicious."

"You don't know how you pain me when you say that."

"But I must say what I think."

Mary set her little mouth, and looked down, and began tapping her boot with her parasol. There was an awkward silence while Tom considered within himself whether she was not right, and whether, after all, his own jealousy had not been the cause of the lecture he had been delivering, much more than any unselfish wish for Mary's improvement.

"It is your turn now," he said presently, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and looking hard at the gravel. "I may have been foolishly jealous, and I thank you for telling me so. But you can tell me a great deal more if you will, quite as good for me to hear."

"No, I have nothing to say. I daresay you are open and true, and have nothing to hide or disguise, not even about either of the men we met in the Long Walk on Sunday."

He winced at this random shaft as if he had been stung, and she saw that it had gone home, and repented the next moment. The silence became more and more embarrassing. By good luck, however, their party suddenly appeared strolling towards them from the large garden.

"Here are Uncle Robert and Katie, and all of them. Let us join them."

She rose up, and he with her, and as they walked towards the rest, he said quickly in a low voice, "Will you forgive me if I have pained you? I was very selfish, and I am sorry."

"Oh yes, we were both very foolish, but we won't do it again."

"Here you are at last. We have been looking for you everywhere," said Miss Winter, as they came up.

"I'm sure I don't know how we missed you. We came straight from the music tent to this seat, and have not moved. We knew you must come by sooner or later."

"But it is quite out of the way. It is quite by chance that we came round here."

"Isn't Uncle Robert tired, Katie?" said Tom; "he doesn't look well this afternoon."

Katie instantly turned to her father, and Mr. Winter declared himself to be much fatigued. So they wished their hospitable entertainers good-bye, and Tom hurried off and got a wheel chair for his uncle, and walked by his side to their lodgings. The young ladies walked near the chair also, accompanied by one or two of their acquaintances; in fact they could not move without an escort. But Tom never once turned his head for a glance at what was going on, and talked steadily on to his uncle, that he might not catch a stray word of what the rest were saying. Despite of all this self-denial, however, he was quite aware somehow when he made his bow at the door that Mary had been very silent all the way home.

Mr. Winter retired to his room to lie down, and his daughter and niece remained in the sitting-room. Mary sat down and untied her bonnet, but did not burst into her usual flood of comments on the events of the day. Miss Winter looked at her and said-

"You look tired, dear, and over-excited."

"Oh yes, so I am. I've had such a quarrel with Tom."

"A quarrel-you're not serious?"

"Indeed I am, though. I quite hated him for five minutes at least."

"But what did he do?"

"Why, he taunted me with being too civil to everybody, and it made me so angry. He said I pretended to take an interest in ever so many things, just to please people, when I didn't really care about them. And it isn't true, now, Katie, is it?"

"No, dear. He never could have said that. You must have misunderstood him."

"There, I knew you would say so. And if it were true, I'm sure it isn't wrong. When people talk to you, it 's so easy to seem pleased and interested in what they are saying; and then they like you, and it is so pleasant to be liked. Now, Katie, do you ever snap people's noses off, or tell them you think them very foolish, and that you don't care, and that what they are saying is all of no consequence?"

"I, dear? I couldn't do it to save my life."

"Oh, I was sure you couldn't. And he may say what he will, but I am quite sure he would not have been pleased if we had not made ourselves pleasant to his friends."

"That's quite true. He has told me himself half a dozen times how delighted he was to see you so popular."

"And you too, Katie?"

"Oh yes. He was very well pleased with me. But it is you who have turned all the heads in the college, Mary. You are Queen of St. Ambrose beyond a doubt just now."

"No, no, Katie; not more than you at any rate."

"I say yes, yes, Mary. You will always be ten times as popular as I; some people have the gift of it; I wish I had. But why do you look so grave again?"

"Why, Katie, don't you see you are just saying over again, only in a different way, what your provoking cousin-I shall call him Mr. Brown, I think, in future-was telling me for my good in St. John's gardens. You saw how long we were away from you; well, he was lecturing me all the time, only think; and now you are going to tell it me all over again. But go on, dear; I sha'n't mind anything from you."

She put her arm round her cousin's waist, and looked up playfully into her face. Miss Winter saw at once that no great harm, perhaps some good, had been done in the passage of arms between her relatives.

"You made it all up," she said, smiling, "before we found you."

"Only just, though. He begged my pardon just at last, almost in a whisper, when you were quite close to us."

"And you granted it?"

"Yes, of course; but I don't know that I shall not recall it."

"I was sure you would be falling out before long, you got on so fast. But he isn't quite so easy to turn round your finger as you thought, Mary."

"Oh, I don't know that," said Mary, laughing; "you saw how humble he looked at last, and what good order he was in."

"Well, dear, it's time to think whether we shall go out again."

"Let me see; there's the last ball. What do you say?"

"Why, I'm afraid poor papa is too tired to take us, and I don't know with whom we could go. We ought to begin packing, too I think."

"Very well. Let us have tea quietly at home."

"I will write a note to Tom to tell him. He has done his best for us, poor fellow, and we ought to consider him a little."

"Oh yes, and ask him and his friend Mr. Hardy to tea, as it is the last night."

"If you wish it, I shall be very glad; they will amuse papa."

"Certainly, and then he will see that I bear him no malice. And now I will go and just do my hair."

"Very well; and we will pack after they leave. How strange home will seem after all this gayety."

"Yes, we seem to have been here a month."

"I do hope we shall find all quiet at Englebourn. I am always afraid of some trouble there."

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