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   Chapter 32 A CRISIS

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 30091

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


In the forenoon of the following day, Tom rode slowly along the street of Englebourn towards the Rectory gate. He had left Barton soon after breakfast, without having been able to exchange a word with Mary except in the presence of her mother, and yet he had felt more anxious than ever before at least to say good bye to her without witnesses. With this view he had been up early, and had whistled a tune in the hall, and held a loud conversation with the boys, who appeared half dressed in the gallery above, while he brushed the dilapidated white hat to let all whom it might concern know that he was on the move. Then he had walked up and down the garden in full view of the windows till the bell rang for prayers. He was in the breakfast room before the bell had done ringing, and Mrs. Porter, followed by her daughter, entered at the same moment. He could not help fancying that the conversation at breakfast was a little constrained, and particularly remarked that nothing was said by the heads of the family when the boys vociferously bewailed his approaching departure, and tried to get him to name some day for his return before their holidays ended. Instead of encouraging the idea, Mrs. Porter reminded Neddy and Charley that they had only ten days more, and had not yet looked at the work they had to do for their tutor in the holidays. Immediately after breakfast Mrs. Porter had wished him good bye herself very kindly, but (he could not help thinking), without that air of near relationship which he had flattered himself was well established between himself and all the members of the Porter family; and then she had added, "Now Mary, you must say good bye; I want you to come and help me this morning." He had scarcely looked at her all morning, and now one shake of the hand and she was spirited away in a moment, and he was left standing, dissatisfied and uncomfortable, with a sense of incompleteness in his mind, and as if he had had a thread in his life suddenly broken off, which he could not tell how to get joined again.

However, there was nothing for it but to get off. He had no excuse for delay, and had a long ride before him; so he and the boys went round to the stable. On their passage through the garden, the idea of picking a nosegay and sending it to her by one of the boys came into his head. He gathered the flowers, but then thought better of it and threw them away. What right, after all, had he to be sending flowers to her-above all, flowers to which they had attached a meaning, jokingly it was true; but still a meaning? No, he had no right to do it; it would not be fair to her, or her father or mother, after the kind way in which they had all received him. So he threw away the flowers, and mounted and rode off, watched by the boys, who waved their straw hats as he looked back just before coming to a turn in the road which would take him out of sight of the Manor House. He rode along at a foot's pace for some time, thinking over the events of the past week; and then, beginning to feel purposeless, and somewhat melancholy, urged his horse into a smart trot along the waste land which skirted the road. But, go what pace he would, it mattered not; he could not leave his thoughts behind; so he pulled up again after a mile or so, slackened his reins, and, leaving his horse to pick his own way along the road, betook himself to the serious consideration of his position.

The more he thought of it, the more discontented he became, and the day clouded over as if to suit his temper. He felt as if within the last twenty-four hours he had been somehow unwarrantably interfered with. His mother and Mrs. Porter had both been planning something about him, he felt sure. If they had anything to say, why couldn't they say it out to him? But what could there be to say? Couldn't he and Mary be trusted together without making fools of themselves? He did not stop to analyze his feelings towards her, or to consider whether it was very prudent or desirable for her that they should be thrown so constantly and unreservedly together. He was too much taken up with what he chose to consider his own wrongs for any such consideration.-"Why can't they let me alone?" was the question which he asked himself perpetually, and it seemed to him the most reasonable one in the world, and that no satisfactory answer was possible to it, except that he ought to be, and should be let alone. And so at last he rode along Englebourn street, convinced that what he had to do before all other things just now was to assert himself properly, and show everyone, even his own mother, that he was no longer a boy to be managed according to anyone's fancies except his own.

He rode straight to the stables and loosed the girths of his horse, and gave particular directions about grooming and feeding him, and stayed in the stall for a few minutes rubbing his ears and fondling him. The antagonism which possessed him for the moment against mankind perhaps made him appreciate the value of his relations with a well-trained beast. He had not been in Englebourn for some years, and the servant did not know him, and answered that Mr. Winter was not out of his room and never saw strangers till the afternoon. Where was Miss Winter, then? She was down the village at Widow Winburn's, and he couldn't tell when she would be back, the man said. The contents of Katie's note of the day before had gone out of his head, but the mention of Betty's name recalled them, and with them something of the kindly feeling which had stirred within him on hearing of her illness. So, saying he would call later to see his uncle, he started again to find the widow's cottage, and his cousin.

The servant had directed him to the last house in the village, but, when he got outside of the gate, there were houses in two directions. He looked about for some one and from whom to inquire further, and his eye fell upon our old acquaintance, the constable, coming out of his door with a parcel under his arm.

The little man was in a brown study, and did not notice Tom's first address. He was in fact anxiously thinking over his old friend's illness and her son's trouble; and was on his way to Farmer Grove's, (having luckily the excuse of taking a coat to be tried on) in the hopes of getting him to interfere and patch up the quarrel between young Tester and Harry.

Tom's first salute had been friendly enough; no one knew better how to speak to the poor, amongst whom he had lived all his life, than he. But, not getting any answer, and being in a touchy state of mind, he was put out, and shouted-

"Hello, my man, can't you hear me?"

"Ees, I beant dunch," replied the constable, turning and looking at his questioner.

"I thought you were, for I spoke loud enough before. Which is

Mrs. Winburn's cottage?"

"The furdest house down ther," he said, pointing, "'tis in my way if you've a mind to come." Tom accepted the offer and walked along by the constable.

"Mrs. Winburn is ill, isn't she," he asked, after looking his guide over.

"Ees, her be-terrible bad," said the constable.

"What is the matter with her, do you know?"

"Zummat o' fits, I hears. Her've had 'em this six year, on and off."

"I suppose it's dangerous. I mean she isn't likely to get well?"

"'Tis in the Lord's hands," replied the constable, "but her's that bad wi' pain, at times, 'twould be a mussy if 'twould plaase He to tak' her out on't."

"Perhaps she mightn't think so," said Tom, superciliously; he was not in the mind to agree with anyone. The constable looked at him solemnly for a moment, and then said-

"Her's been a God-fearin' woman from her youth up, and her's had a deal o' trouble. Thaay as the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and 'tisn't such as thaay as is afeared to go afore Him."

"Well, I never found that having troubles made people a bit more anxious to get 'out on't,' as you call it," said Tom. "It don't seem to me as you can 'a had much o' trouble to judge by," said the constable, who was beginning to be nettled by Tom's manner.

"How can you tell that?"

"Leastways 'twould be whoam-made, then," persisted the constable; "and ther's a sight o' odds atween whoam made troubles and thaay as the Lord sends."

"So there may; but I may have seen both sorts for anything you can tell."

"Nay, nay; the Lord's troubles leaves His marks."

"And you don't see any of them in my face, eh?"

The constable jerked his head after his own peculiar fashion, but declined to reply directly to this interrogatory. He parried it by one of his own.

"In the doctorin' line, make so bould?"

"No," said Tom. "You don't seem to have such very good eyes, after all."

"Oh, I seed you wasn't old enough to be doin' for yourself, like; but I thought you med ha' been a 'sistant, or summat."

"Well, then, you're just mistaken," said Tom, considerably disgusted at being taken for a country doctor's assistant.

"I ax your pill-don," said the constable. "But if you beant in the doctorin' line, what be gwine to Widow Winburn's for, make so bould?"

"That's my look out, I suppose," said Tom, almost angrily. "That's the house, isn't it?" and he pointed to the cottage already described, at the corner of Englebourn Copse.

"Ees."

"Good day, then."

"Good day," muttered the constable, not at all satisfied with this abrupt close of the conversation, but too unready to prolong it. He went on his own way slowly, looking back often, till he saw the door open, after which he seemed better satisfied, and ambled out of sight.

"The old snuffler!" thought Tom, as be strode up to the cottage door,-"a ranter, I'll be bound, with his Lord's troubles,' and 'Lord's hands,' and 'Lord's marks.' I hope Uncle Robert hasn't many such in the parish."

He knocked at the cottage door, and in a few seconds it opened gently, and Katie slipped out with her finger on her lips. She made a slight gesture of surprise at seeing him, and held out her hand.

"Hush!" she said, "she is asleep. You are not in a hurry?"

"No, not particularly," he answered, abruptly; for there was something in her voice and manner which jarred with his humor.

"Hush!" she said again, "you must not speak so loud. We can sit down here, and talk quietly. I shall hear if she moves."

So he sat down opposite to her in the little porch of the cottage. She left the door ajar, so that she might catch the least movement of her patient, and then turned to him with a bright smile, and said,-

"Well, I am so glad to see you! What good wind blows you here?"

"No particularly good wind, that I know of. Mary showed me your letter yesterday, and mother wished me to come round here on my way home; and so here I am."

"And how did the party go off? I long to hear about it."

"Very well; half the county were there, and it was all very well done."

"And how did dear Mary look?"

"Oh, just as usual. But now, Katie, why didn't you come? Mary and all of us were so disappointed."

"I thought you read my letter?"

"Yes, so I did."

"Then you know the reason."

"I don't call it a reason. Really, you have no right to shut yourself up from everything. You will be getting moped to death."

"But do I look moped?" she said; and he looked at her, and couldn't help admitting to himself, reluctantly, that she did not. So he re-opened fire from another point.

"You will wear yourself out, nursing every old woman in the parish."

"But I don't nurse every old woman."

"Why, there is no one here but you to-day, now," he said, with a motion of his head towards the cottage.

"No, because I have let the regular nurse go home for a few hours. Besides, this is a special case. You don't know what a dear old soul Betty is."

"Yes, I do; I remember her ever since I was a child."

"Ah, I forgot; I have often heart her talk of you."

"Then you ought not to be surprised at anything I may do for her."

"She is a good, kind old woman, I know. But still I must say, Katie, you ought to think of your friends and relations a little, and what you owe to society."

"Indeed, I do think of my friends and relations very much, and I should have liked, of all things, to have been with you yesterday. You ought to be pitying me, instead of scolding me."

"My dear Katie, you know I didn't mean to scold you; and nobody admires the way you give yourself up to visiting, and all that sort of thing, more than I; only you ought to have a little pleasure sometimes. People have a right to think of themselves and their own happiness a little."

"Perhaps I don't find visiting and all that sort of thing so very miserable. But now, Tom, you saw in my letter that poor Betty's son has got into trouble?"

"Yes; and that is what brought on her attack, you said."

"I believe so. She was in a sad state about him all yesterday,-so painfully eager and anxious. She is better today, but still I think it would do her good if you would see her, and say you will be a friend to her son. Would you mind?"

"It was just what I wished to do yesterday. I will do all I can for him, I'm sure. I always liked him as a boy; you can tell her that. But I don't feel, somehow-today, at least-as if I could do any good by seeing her."

"Oh, why not?"

"I don't think I'm in the right humor. Is she very ill?"

"Yes, very ill indeed; I don't think she can recover."

"Well, you see, Katie, I'm not used to death-beds. I shouldn't say the right sort of thing."

"How do you mean-the right sort of thing?"

"Oh, you know. I couldn't talk to her about her soul. I'm not fit for it, and it isn't my place."

"No, indeed, it isn't. But you can remind her of old times and say a kind word about her son."

"Very well, if you don't think I shall do any harm."

"I'm sure it will comfort her. And now tell me about yesterday."

They sat talking for some time in the same low tone, and Tom began to forget his causes of quarrel with the world, and gave an account of the archery party from his own point of view. Katie saw, with a woman's quickness, that he avoided mentioning Mary, and smiled to herself and drew her own conclusions.

At last, there was a slight movement in the cottage, and laying her hand on his arm, she got up quickly, and went in. In a few minutes she came to the door again.

"How is she?" asked Tom.

"Oh, much the same; but she has waked without pain, which is a great blessing. Now, are you ready?"

"Yes; you must go with me."

"Come in, then." She turned, and he followed into the cottage.

Betty's bed had been moved into the kitchen, for the sake of light and air. He glanced at the corner where it stood with almost a feeling of awe, as he followed his cousin on tip-toe. It was all he could do to recognize the pale, drawn face which lay on the coarse pillow. The rush of old memories which the sight called up, and the thought of the suffering of his poor old friend touched him deeply.

Katie went to the bed-side, and, stooping down, smoot

hed the pillow, and placed her hand for a moment on the forehead of her patient. Then she looked up, and beckoned to him, and said, in her low, clear voice,-

"Betty, here is an old friend come to see you; my cousin, Squire

Brown's son. You remember him quite a little boy?"

The old woman moved her head towards the voice, and smiled, but gave no further sign of recognition. Tom stole across the floor, and sat down by the bed-side.

"Oh, yes, Betty," he said, leaning towards her and speaking softly, "you must remember me. Master Tom who used to come to your cottage on baking days for hot bread, you know."

"To be sure I minds un, bless his little heart," said the old woman faintly. "Hev he come to see poor Betty? Do'ee let un com', and lift un up so as I med see un. My sight be getting dim-like."

"Here he is, Betty," said Tom, taking her hand-a hardworking hand, lying there with the skin all puckered from long and daily acquaintance with the washing-tub-"I'm Master Tom."

"Ah, dearee me," she said slowly, looking at him with lustreless eyes. "Well, you be growed into a fine young gentleman, surely. And how's the Squire and Madam Brown, and all the fam'ly?"

"Oh, very well, Betty,-they will be so sorry to hear of your illness."

"But there ain't no hot bread for un. 'Tis ill to bake wi' no fuz bushes, and the bakers' stuff is poor for hungry folk."

"I'm within three months as old as your Harry, you know," said

Tom, trying to lead her back to the object of his visit.

"Harry," she repeated, and then collecting herself went on, "our Harry; where is he? They haven't sent un to prison, and his mother a dyin'?"

"Oh, no, Betty; he will be here directly. I came to ask whether there is anything I can do for you."

"You'll stand by un, poor buoy-our Harry, as you used to play wi' when you was little-'twas they as aggravated un so he couldn't abear it, afore ever he'd a struck a fly."

"Yes, Betty; I will see that he has fair play. Don't trouble about that, it will be all right. You must be quite quiet, and not trouble yourself about anything, that you may get well and about again."

"Nay, nay, Master Tom. I be gwine whoam; ees, I be gwine whoam to my maester, Harry's father-I knows I be-and you'll stand by un when I be gone; and Squire Brown 'll say a good word for un to the justices?"

"Yes, Betty, that he will. But you must cheer up, and you'll get better yet; don't be afraid."

"I beant afeard, Master Tom; no, bless you, I beant afeard but what the Lord'll be mussiful to a poor lone woman like me, as has had a sore time of it since my measter died wi' a hungry boy like our Harry to kep, back and belly; and the rheumatics terrible bad all winter time."

"I'm sure, Betty, you have done your duty by him, and everyone else."

"Dwontee speak o' doin's, Master Tom. 'Tis no doin's o' ourn as'll make any odds where I be gwine."

Tom did not know what to answer; so he pressed her hand and said,-

"Well, Betty, I am very glad I have seen you once more; I sha'n't forget it. Harry sha'n't want a friend while I live."

"The Lord bless you, Master Tom, for that word," said the dying woman, returning the pressure, as her eyes filled with tears. Katie, who had been watching her carefully from the other side of the bed, made him a sign to go.

"Good-bye, Betty" he said; "I won't forget, you may be sure; God bless you;" and then, disengaging his hand gently, went out again into the porch, where he sat down to wait for his cousin.

In a few minutes the nurse returned, and Katie came out of the cottage soon afterwards.

"Now I will walk up home with you," she said. "You must come in and see papa. Well, I'm sure you must be glad you went in. Was not I right?"

"Yes, indeed; I wish I could have said something more to comfort her."

"You couldn't have said more. It was just what she wanted."

"But where is her son? I ought to see him before I go."

"He has gone to the doctor's for some medicine. He will be back soon."

"Well, I must see him; and I should like to do something for him at once. I'm not very flush of money, but I must give you something for him. You'll take it; I shouldn't like to offer it to him."

"I hardly think he wants money; they are well off now. He earns good wages, and Betty has done her washing up to this week."

"Yes, but he will be fined, I suppose, for this assault; and then, if she should die, there will be the funeral expenses."

"Very well; as you please," she said; and Tom proceeded to hand over to her all his ready money, except a shilling or two. After satisfying his mind thus, he looked at her, and said-

"Do you know, Katie, I don't think I ever saw you so happy and in such spirits?"

"There now! And yet you began talking to me as if I were looking sad enough to turn all the beer in the parish sour."

"Well, so you ought to be, according to Cocker, spending all your time in sick rooms."

"According to who?"

"According to Cocker."

"Who is Cocker?"

"Oh, I don't know; some old fellow who wrote the rules of arithmetic, I believe; it's only a bit of slang. But, I repeat, you have a right to be sad, and it's taking an unfair advantage of your relations to look as pleasant as you do."

Katie laughed. "You ought not to say so, at any rate," she said, "for you look all the pleasanter for your visit to a sick room."

"Did I look very unpleasant before?"

"Well, I don't think you were in a very good humor."

"No, I was in a very bad humor, and talking to you and poor old Betty has set me right, I think. But you said hers was a special case. It must be very sad work in general."

"Only when one sees people in great pain, or when they are wicked, and quarreling, or complaining about nothing; then I do get very low sometimes. But even then it is much better than keeping to one's self. Anything is better than thinking of one's self, and one's own troubles."

"I dare say you are right," said Tom, recalling his morning's meditations, "especially when one's troubles are homemade. Look, here's an old fellow who gave me a lecture on that subject before I saw you this morning, and took me for the apothecary's boy."

They were almost opposite David's door, at which he stood with a piece of work in his hand. He had seen Miss Winter from his look-out window, and had descended from his board in hopes of hearing news.

Katie returned his respectful and anxious salute, and said, "She is no worse, David. We left her quite out of pain and very quiet."

"Ah, 'tis to be hoped as she'll hev a peaceful time on't now, poor soul," said David; "I've a been to Farmer Groves', and I hope as he'll do summat about Harry."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Miss Winter, "and my cousin here, who knew Harry very well when they were little boys together, has promised to help him. This is Harry's best friend," she said to Tom, "who has done more than anyone to keep him right."

David seemed a little embarrassed, and began jerking his head about when his acquaintance of the morning, whom he had scarcely noticed before, was introduced by Miss Winter as "my cousin."

"I wish to do all I can for him," said Tom, "and I'm very glad to have made your acquaintance. You must let me know whenever I can help;" and he took out a card and handed it to David, who looked at it, and then said,-

"And I be to write to you, sir, then, if Harry gets into trouble?"

"Yes; but we must keep him out of trouble, even home-made ones, which don't leave good marks, you know," said Tom.

"And thaay be nine out o' ten o' aal as comes to a man, sir" said

David "as I've a told Harry scores o' times."

"That seems to be your text, David," said Tom, laughing.

"Ah, and 'tis a good un too, sir. Ax Miss Winter else. 'Tis a sight better to hev the Lord's troubles while you be about it, for thaay as hasn't makes wus for themselves out o' nothin'. Dwon't 'em, Miss?"

"Yes; you know that I agree with you, David."

"Good-bye, then," said Tom, holding out his hand, "and mind you let me hear from you."

"What a queer old bird, with his whole wisdom of man packed up small for ready use, like a quack doctor," he said, as soon as they were out of hearing.

"Indeed, he isn't the least like a quack doctor. I don't know a better man in the parish, though he is rather obstinate, like all the rest of them."

"I didn't mean to say anything against him, I assure you," said Tom; "on the contrary, I think him a fine old fellow. But I didn't think so this morning, when he showed me the way to Betty's cottage." The fact was that Tom saw all things and persons with quite a different pair of eyes from those which he had been provided with when he arrived in Englebourn that morning. He even made allowances for old Mr. Winter, who was in his usual querulous state at luncheon, though perhaps it would have been difficult in the whole neighborhood to find a more pertinent comment on, and illustration of, the constable's text than the poor old man furnished, with his complaints about his own health, and all he had to do and think of, for everybody about him. It did strike Tom, however, as very wonderful how such a character as Katie's could have grown up under the shade of, and in constant contact with, such a one as her father's. He wished his uncle good-bye soon after luncheon, and he and Katie started again down the village-she to return to her nursing and he on his way home. He led his horse by the bridle and walked by her side down the street. She pointed to the Hawk's Lynch as they walked along, and said, "You should ride up there; it is scarcely out of your way. Mary and I used to walk there every day when she was here, and she was so fond of it."

At the cottage they found Harry Winburn. He came out, and the two young men shook hands, and looked one another over, and exchanged a few shy sentences. Tom managed with difficulty to say the little he had to say, but tried to make up for it by a hearty manner. It was not the time or place for any unnecessary talk; so in a few minutes he was mounted and riding up the slope towards the heath. "I should say he must be half a stone lighter than I," he thought, "and not quite so tall; but he looks as hard as iron, and tough as whipcord. What a No. 7 he'd make in a heavy crew! Poor fellow, he seems dreadfully cut up. I hope I shall be able to be of use to him. Now for this place which Katie showed me from the village street."

He pressed his horse up the steep side of the Hawk's Lynch. The exhilaration of the scramble, and the sense of power, and of some slight risk, which he felt as he helped on the gallant beast with hand and knee and heel, while the loose turf and stones flew from his hoofs and rolled down the hill behind them, made Tom's eyes kindle and his pulse beat quicker as he reached the top and pulled up under the Scotch firs. "This was her favorite walk, then. No wonder. What an air, and what a view!" He jumped off his horse, slipped the bridle over his arm, and let him pick away at the short grass and tufts of heath, as he himself first stood, and then sat, and looked out over the scene which she had so often looked over. She might have sat on the very spot he was sitting on; she must have taken in the same expanse of wood and meadow, village and park, and dreamy, distant hill. Her presence seemed to fill the air round him. A rush of new thoughts and feelings swam through his brain and carried him, a willing piece of drift man, along with them. He gave himself up to the stream and revelled in them. His eye traced back the road along which he had ridden in the morning, and rested on the Barton woods, just visible in the distance, on this side of the point where all outline except that of the horizon began to be lost. The flickering July air seemed to beat in a pulse of purple glory over the spot. The soft wind which blew straight from Barton seemed laden with her name, and whispered it in the firs, over his head. Every nerve in his body was bounding with new life, and he could sit still no longer. He rose, sprang on his horse, and, with a shout of joy, turned from the vale and rushed away on to the heath, northwards towards his home behind the chalk hills. He had ridden into Englebourn in the morning an almost unconscious dabbler by the margin of the great stream; he rode from the Hawk's Lynch in the afternoon over head and ears and twenty, a hundred, ay, unnumbered fathoms below that, deep; consciously, and triumphantly in love.

But at what a pace, and in what a form! Love, at least in his first access, must be as blind a horseman as he is an archer. The heath was rough with peat-cutting and turf-cutting and many a deep-rutted farm road, and tufts of heather and furze. Over them and through them went horse and man-horse rising seven and man twenty off, a well-matched pair in age for a wild ride-headlong towards the north, till a blind rut somewhat deeper than usual put an end to their career, and sent the good horse staggering forward some thirty feet on to his nose and knees, and Tom over his shoulder, on to his back in the heather.

"Well, it's lucky it's no worse," thought our hero, as he picked himself up and anxiously examined the horse, who stood trembling and looking wildly puzzled at the whole proceeding; "I hope he hasn't overreached. What will the governor say? His knees are all right. Poor old boy!" he said, patting him; "no wonder you look astonished. You're not in love. Come along; we won't make fools of ourselves any more. What is it?-

'A true love forsaken a new love may get,

But a neck that's once broken can never be set.'

What stuff! one may get a neck set for anything I know; but a new love-blasphemy!"

The rest of the ride passed off soberly enough, except in Tom's brain, wherein were built up in gorgeous succession castles such as we have all built, I suppose, before now. And with the castles were built up side by side good honest resolves to be worthy of her, and win her and worship her with body, and mind, and soul. And, as a first installment, away to the winds went all the selfish morning thoughts; and he rode down the northern slope of the chalk hills a dutiful and affectionate son, at peace with Mrs. Porter, honoring her for her care of the treasure which he was seeking, and in good time for dinner.

"Well, dear," said Mrs. Brown to her husband when they were alone that night, "did you ever see Tom in such spirits, and so gentle and affectionate? Dear boy; there can be nothing the matter."

"Didn't I tell you so," replied Mr. Brown; "you women have always got some nonsense in your heads as soon as your boys have a hair on their chin or your girls begin to put up their back hair."

"Well, John, say what you will, I'm sure Mary Porter is a very sweet, taking girl, and-"

"I am quite of the same opinion," said Mr. Brown, "and am very glad you have written to ask them here."

And so the worthy couple went happily to bed.

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