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   Chapter 37 THE NIGHT WATCH

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 26439

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


"You may do as you please, but I'm going to see it out."

"No, but I say do come along; that's a good, fellow."

"Not I; why, we've only just come out. Didn't you hear? Wurley dared me to do a night's watching, and I said I meant to do it."

"Yes; so did I. But we can change our minds. What's the good of having a mind if you can't change it! [Greek text] ai denterai poz phrontidez sophoterai-isn't that good Greek and good sense?"

"I don't see it. They'll only laugh and sneer if we go back now."

"They'll laugh at us twice as much if we don't. Fancy they're just beginning pool now, on that stunning table. Come along, Brown; don't miss your chance. We shall be sure to divide the pools, as we've missed the claret. Cool hands and cool heads, you know. Green on brown, pink your player in hand! That's a good deal pleasanter than squatting here all night on the damp grass."

"Very likely."

"But you won't? Now, do be reasonable. Will you come if I stop with you another half-hour?"

"No."

"An hour then? Say till ten o'clock?"

"If I went at all I would go at once."

"Then you won't come?"

"No."

"I'll bet you a sovereign you never see a poacher, and then how sad you will be in the morning! It will be much worse coming in to breakfast with empty hands and a cold in the head, than going in now. They will chaff then, I grant you."

"Well, then, they may chaff and be hanged, for I shan't go in now."

Tom's interlocutor put his hands in the pockets of his heather mixture shooting coat, and took a turn or two of some dozen yards, backwards and forwards above the place where our hero was sitting. He didn't like going in and facing the pool players by himself; so he stopped once more and reopened the conversation.

"What do you want to do by watching all night, Brown?"

"To show the keeper and those fellows indoors that I mean what I say. I said I'd do it, and I will."

"You don't want to catch a poacher, then?"

"I don't much care; I'll catch one if he comes in my way-or try it on, at any rate."

"I say, Brown, I like that; as if you don't poach yourself. Why, I remember when the Whiteham keeper spent the best part of a week outside the college gates, on the lookout for you and Drysdale and some other fellows."

"What has that to do with it?"

"Why, you ought to have more fellow-feeling. I suppose you go on the principle of set a thief to catch a thief?"

Tom made no answer, and his companion went on.

"Come along, now, like a good fellow. If you'll come in now, we can come out again all fresh, when the rest go to bed."

"Not we. I sha'n't go in. But you can come out again if you like; you'll find me hereabouts."

The man in the heather mixture had now shot his last bolt, and took himself off to the house, leaving Tom by the riverside. How they got there may be told in a few words. After his morning's fishing, and conversation with the keeper, he had gone in full of his subject and propounded it at the breakfast table. His strictures on the knife and razor business produced a rather warm discussion, which merged in the question whether a keeper's life was a hard one, till something was said implying that Wurley's men were overworked. The master took this in high dudgeon, and words ran high. In the discussion, Tom remarked (apropos of night-work) that he would never ask another man to do what he would not do himself; which sentiment was endorsed by, amongst others, the man in the heather mixture. The host had retorted, that they had better in that case try it themselves; which remark had the effect of making Tom resolve to cut short his visit, and in the meantime had brought him and his ally to the river side on the night in question.

The first hour, as we have seen, had been enough for the ally; and so Tom was left in company with a plaid, a stick, and a pipe, to spend the night by himself.

It was by no means the first night he had spent in the open air, and promised to be a pleasant one for camping out. It was almost the longest day in the year, and the weather was magnificent. There was yet an hour of daylight, and the place he had chosen was just the right one for enjoying the evening.

He was sitting under one of a clump of huge old alders, growing on the thin strip of land already noticed, which divided the main stream from the deep artificial ditch which fed the water-meadows. On his left the emerald-green meadows stretched away till they met the inclosed corn-land. On his right ran the main stream, some fifty feet in breadth at this point; on the opposite side of which was a rough piece of ground, half withey-bed, half copse, with a rank growth of rushes at the water's edge. These were the chosen haunts of the moor-hen and water-rat, whose tracks could be seen by dozens, like small open doorways, looking out on to the river, through which ran a number of mysterious little paths into the rush-wilderness beyond.

The sun was now going down behind the copse, through which his beams came aslant, chequered and mellow. The stream ran dimpling by him, sleepily swaying the masses of weed, under the surface and on the surface; and the trout rose under the banks, as some moth or gnat or gleaming beetle fell into the stream; here and there one more frolicsome than his brethren would throw himself joyously into the air. The swifts rushed close by him, in companies of five or six, and wheeled, and screamed, and dashed away again, skimming along the water, baffling his eye as he tried to follow their flight. Two kingfishers shot suddenly up on to their supper station, on a stunted willow stump, some twenty yards below him, and sat there in the glory of their blue backs and cloudy red waistcoats, watching with long sagacious beaks pointed to the water beneath, and every now and then dropping like flashes of light into the stream, and rising again, with what seemed one motion, to their perches. A heron or two were fishing about the meadows; and he watched them stalking about in their sober quaker coats, or rising on slow heavy wing, and lumbering away home with a weird cry. He heard the strong pinions of the wood pigeon in the air, and then from the trees above his head came the soft call, "Take-two-cow-Taffy, take-two-cow-Taffy," with which that fair and false bird is said to have beguilled the hapless Welchman to the gallows. Presently, as he lay motionless, the timid and graceful little water-hens peered out from their doors in the rushes opposite, and, seeing no cause for fear, stepped daintily into the water, and were suddenly surrounded by little bundles of black soft down, which went paddling about in and out of the weeds, encouraged by the occasional sharp, clear, parental "keck-keck," and merry little dabchicks popped up in mid-stream, and looked round, and nodded at him, pert and voiceless, and dived again; even old cunning water-rats sat up on the bank with round black noses and gleaming eyes, or took solemn swims out, and turned up their tails and disappeared for his amusement. A comfortable low came at intervals from the cattle, revelling in the abundant herbage. All living things seemed to be disporting themselves, and enjoying, after their kind, the last gleams of the sunset, which were making the whole vault of heaven glow and shimmer; and, as he watched them, Tom blessed his stars as he contrasted the river-side with the glare of lamps and the click of balls in the noisy pool room.

Before it got dark he bethought him of making sure of his position once more; matters might have changed since he chose it before dinner. With all that he could extract from the keeper, and his own experience in such matters, it had taken him several hours' hunting up and down the river that afternoon before he had hit on a night-line. But he had persevered, knowing that this was the only safe evidence to start from, and at last had found several, so cunningly set that it was clear that it was a first-rate artist in the poaching line against whom he had pitted himself. These lines must have been laid almost under his nose on that very day, as the freshness of the baits proved. The one which he had selected to watch by was under the bank, within a few yards of the clump of alders where he was now sitting. There was no satisfactory cover near the others; so he had chosen this one, where he would be perfectly concealed behind the nearest trunk from any person who might come in due time to take up the line. With this view, then, he got up, and, stepping carefully on the thickest grass where his foot would leave no mark, went to the bank, and felt with the hook of his stick after the line. It was all right, and he returned to his old seat.

And then the summer twilight came on, and the birds disappeared, and the hush of night settled down on river, and copse, and meadow-cool and gentle summer twilight after the hot bright day. He welcomed it too, as it folded up the landscape, and the trees lost their outline, and settled into soft black masses rising here and there out of the white mist, which seemed to have crept up to within a few yards all round him unawares. There was no sound now but the gentle murmur of the water and an occasional rustle of reeds, or of the leaves over his head, as a stray wandering puff of air passed through them on its way home to bed. Nothing to listen to and nothing to look at; for the moon had not risen, and the light mist hid everything except a star or two right up above him. So, the outside world having left him for the present, he was turned inwards on himself.

This was all very well at first; and he wrapped the plaid round his shoulders and leant against his tree, and indulged in a little self-gratulation. There was something of strangeness and adventure in his solitary night-watch, which had its charm for a youngster of twenty-one; and the consciousness of not running from his word, of doing what he had said he would do, while others shirked and broke down, was decidedly pleasant.

But this satisfaction did not last very long, and the night began to get a little wearisome, and too cool to be quite comfortable. By degrees, doubts as to the wisdom of his self-imposed task crept into his head. He dismissed them for a time by turning his thoughts to other matters. The neighbourhood of Englebourn, some two miles up above him, reminded him of the previous summer; and he wondered how he should get on with his cousin when they met. He should probably see her the next day, for he would lose no time in calling. Would she receive him well? Would she have much to tell him about Mary?

He had been more hopeful on this subject of late, but the loneliness, the utter solitude and silence of his position as he sat there in the misty night, away from all human habitations, was not favorable somehow to hopefulness. He found himself getting dreary and sombre in heart-more and more so as the minutes rolled on, and the silence and loneliness pressed on him more and more heavily. He was surprised at his own down-heartedness, and tried to remember how he had spent former nights so pleasantly out of doors. Ah, he had always had a companion within call, and something to do-cray fishing, bat fowling, or something of the kind! Sitting there doing nothing, he fancied, must make it so heavy to-night. By a strong effort of will he shook off the oppression. He moved, and hummed a tune to break the silence; he got up and walked up and down, lest it should again master him. If wind, storm, pouring rain, anything to make sound or movement, would but come!

But neither of them came, and there was little help in sound or movement made by himself. Besides it occurred to him that much walking up and down might defeat the object of his watch. No one would come near while he was on the move; and he was probably making marks already which might catch the eye of the setter of the nightlines at some distance, if that cunning party waited for the morning light, and might keep him away from the place altogether.

So he sat down again on his old seat, and leant hard against the alder trunk, as though to steady himself, and keep all troublesome thoughts well in front of him. In this attitude of defense he reasoned with himself on the absurdity of allowing himself to be depressed by the mere accidents of place, and darkness, and silence; but all the reasoning at his command didn't alter the fact. He felt the enemy advancing again, and, casting, about for help, fell back on the thought that he was going through a task, holding to his word, doing what he had said he would do; and this brought him some relief for the moment, He fixed his mind steadily on this task of his; but alas, here again in his very last stronghold, the enemy began to turn his flank, and the position every minute became more and more untenable.

He had of late fallen into a pestilent habit of cross-questioning himself on anything which he was about-setting up himself like a cock at Shrovetide, and pelting himself with inexorable "whys?" and "wherefores?" A pestilent habit truly he had found it, and one which left a man no peace of his life-a relentless, sleepless

habit, always ready to take advantage of him, but never so viciously alert, that he remembered, as on this night.

And so this questioning self, which would never be denied for long, began to examine him, as to his proposed night's work. This precious task, which he was so proud of going through with, on the score of which he had been in his heart crowing over others, because they had not taken it on them, or had let it drop, what then was the meaning of it?

"What was he out there for? What had he come out to do?" They were awkward questions. He tried several answers and was driven from one to another till he was bound to admit that he was out there that night partly out of pique, and partly out of pride; and that his object (next to earning the pleasure of thinking himself a better man than his neighbours) was, if so be, to catch a poacher. "To catch a poacher? What business had he to be catching poachers? If all poachers were to be caught, he would have to be caught himself." He had just had an unpleasant reminder of this fact from him of the heather mixture-a Parthian remark which he had thrown over his shoulder as he went off, and which had stuck. "But then," Tom argued, "it was a very different thing, his poaching-going out for a day's lark after game, which he didn't care a straw for, but only for the sport-and that of men making a trade of it, like the man the keeper spoke of." "Why? How different? If there were any difference, was it one in his favour?" Avoiding this suggestion, he took up new ground, "Poachers were always the greatest blackguards in their neighbourhoods, pests of society, and ought to be put down." "Possibly-at any rate he had been one of the fraternity in his time, and was scarcely the man to be casting stones at them." "But his poaching had always been done thoughtlessly. How did he know that others had worse motives?"

And so he went on, tossing the matter backwards and forwards in his mind, and getting more and more uncomfortable, and unable to answer to his own satisfaction the simple question, "What right have you to be out here on this errand?"

He got up a second time and walked up and down, but with no better success than before. The change of position, and exercise, did not help him out of his difficulties. And now he got a step further. If he had no right to be there, hadn't he better go up to the house and say so, and go to bed like the rest? No, his pride couldn't stand that. But if he couldn't go in, he might turn in to a barn or outhouse, nobody would be any the wiser then, and after all he was not pledged to stop on one spot all night? It was a tempting suggestion, and he was very near yielding to it at once. While he wavered, a new set of thoughts came up to back it. How, if he stayed there, and a gang of night-poachers came? He knew that many of them were desperate men. He had no arms; what could he do against them? Nothing; but he might be maimed for life in a night row which he had no business to be in-murdered, perhaps. He stood still and listened long and painfully.

Every moment, as he listened, the silence mastered him more and more, and his reason became more and more powerless. It was such a silence-a great illimitable, vague silence? The silence of a deserted house where he could at least have felt that he was bounded somewhere, by wall, and floor, and roof-where men must have lived and worked once, though they might be there no longer-would have been nothing; but this silence of the huge, wide out-of-doors world, where there was nothing but air and space around and above him, and the ground beneath, it was getting irksome, intolerable, awful! The great silence seemed to be saying to him, "You are alone, alone, alone!" and he had never known before what horror lurked in that thought.

Every moment that he stood still the spell grew stronger on him, and yet he dared not move; and a strange, wild feeling of fear-unmistakable physical fear, which made his heart beat and his limbs tremble-seized on him. He was ready to cry out, to fall down, to run, and yet there he stood listening, still and motionless.

The critical moment in all panics must come at last. A wild and grewsome hissing and snoring, which seemed to come from the air just over his head, made him start and spring forward, and gave him the use of his limbs again at any rate, though they would not have been worth much to him had the ghost or hobgoblin appeared whom he half expected to see the next moment. Then came a screech, which seemed to flit along the rough meadow opposite, and come towards him. He drew a long breath, for he knew that sound well enough; it was nothing after all but the owls.

The mere realized consciousness of the presence of some living creatures, were they only owls, brought him to his senses. And now the moon was well up, and the wayward mist had cleared away, and he could catch glimpses of the solemn birds every now and then, beating over the rough meadow backwards and forwards, and over the shallow water as regularly as trained pointers.

He threw himself down again under his tree, and now bethought himself of his pipe. Here was a companion which, wonderful to say, he had not thought of before since the night set in. He pulled it out, but paused before lighting. Nothing was so likely to betray his whereabouts as tobacco. True, but anything was better than such another fright as he had had, "so here goes," he thought, "if I keep off all the poachers in Berkshire;" and he accordingly lighted up, and, with the help of his pipe, once more debated with himself the question of beating a retreat.

After a sharp inward struggle, he concluded to stay and see it out. He should despise himself, more than he cared to face, if he gave in now. If he left that spot before morning, the motive would be sheer cowardice. There might be fifty other good reasons for going; but, if he went, his reason would be fear and nothing else. It might have been wrong and foolish to come out; it must be to go in now. "Fear never made a man do a right action," he summed up to himself; "so here I stop, come what may of it. I think I've seen the worst of it now. I was in a real blue funk, and no mistake. Let's see, wasn't I laughing this morning at the watcher who didn't like passing a night by the river? Well, he has got the laugh on me now, if he only knew it. I've learnt one lesson to-night at any rate; I don't think I shall ever be very hard on cowards again."

By the time he had finished his pipe, he was a man again, and, moreover, notwithstanding the damp, began to feel sleepy, now that his mind was thoroughly made up, and his nerves were quiet. So he made the best of his plaid, and picked a softish place, and went off into a sort of dog-sleep, which lasted at intervals through the short summer night. A poor thin sort of sleep it was, in which he never altogether lost his consciousness, and broken by short intervals of actual wakefulness, but a blessed release from the self-questionings and panics of the early night.

He woke at last with a shiver. It was colder than he had yet felt it, and it seemed lighter. He stretched his half-torpid limbs, and sat up. Yes, it was certainly getting light, for he could just make out the figures on the face of his watch which he pulled out. The dawn was almost upon him, and his night watch was over. Nothing had come of it as yet, except his fright, at which he could now laugh comfortably enough; probably nothing more might come of it after all, but he had done the task he had set himself without flinching, and that was a satisfaction. He wound up his watch, which he had forgotten to do the night before, and then stood up, and threw his damp plaid aside, and swung his arm across his chest to restore circulation. The crescent moon was high up in the sky, faint and white, and he could scarcely now make out the stars which were fading out as the glow in the north-east got stronger and broader.

Forgetting for a moment the purpose of his vigil, he was thinking of a long morning's fishing, and had turned to pick up his plaid and go off to the house for his fishing-rod, when he thought he heard the sound of dry wood snapping. He listened intently; and the next moment it came again, some way off, but plainly to be heard in the intense stillness of the morning. Some living thing was moving down the stream. Another moment's listening and he was convinced that the sound came from a hedge some hundred yards below.

He had noticed the hedge before; the keeper had stopped up a gap in it the day before, at the place where it came down to the water, with some old hurdles and dry thorns. He drew himself up behind his alder, looking out from behind it cautiously towards the point from which the sound came. He could just make out the hedge through the mist, but saw nothing.

But now the crackling began again, and he was sure that a man was forcing his way over the keeper's barricade. A moment afterwards he saw a figure drop from the hedge into the slip in which he stood. He drew back his head hastily, and his heart beat like a hammer as he waited the approach of the stranger. In a few seconds the suspense was too much for him, for again there was perfect silence. He peered out a second time cautiously round the tree, and now he could make out the figure of a man stopping by the water-side just above the hedge, and drawing in a line. This was enough, and he drew back again, and made himself small behind the tree; now he was sure that the keeper's enemy, the man he had come out to take, was here! His next halt would be at the line which was set within a few yards of the place where he stood. So the struggle which he had courted was come! All his doubts of the night wrestled in his mind for a minute; but forcing them down, he strung himself up for the encounter, his whole frame trembling with excitement, and his blood tingling through his veins as though it would burst them. The next minute was as severe a trial of nerve as he had ever been put to, and the sound of a stealthy tread on the grass just below came to him as a relief. It stopped, and he heard the man stoop, then came a stir in the water, and the flapping as of a fish being landed.

Now was his time! He sprang from behind the tree, and, the next moment, was over the stooping figure of the poacher. Before he could seize him the man sprung up, and grappled with him. They had come to a tight lock at once, for the poacher had risen so close under him that he could not catch his collar and hold him off. Too close to strike, it was a desperate trial of strength and bottom.

Tom knew in a moment that he had his work cut out for him. He felt the nervous power of the frame he had got hold of as he drove his chin into the poacher's shoulder, and arched his back, and strained every muscle in his body to force him backwards, but in vain. It was all he could do to hold his own; but he felt that he might hold it yet, as they staggered on the brink of the back ditch, stamping the grass and marsh marigolds into the ground, and drawing deep breath through their set teeth. A slip, a false foot-hold, a failing muscle, and it would be over; down they must go-who would be uppermost?

The poacher had trod on a soft place and Tom felt it, and, throwing himself forward, was reckoning on victory, but reckoning without his host. For, recovering himself with a twist of the body which brought them still closer together, the poacher locked his leg behind Tom's in a crook which brought the wrestlings of his boyhood into his head with a flash, as they tottered for another moment, and then losing balance, went headlong over with a heavy plunge and splash into the deep back ditch, locked in each other's arms.

The cold water closed over them, and for a moment Tom held as tight as ever. Under or above the surface it was all the same, he couldn't give in first. But a gulp of water, and the singing in his ears, and a feeling of choking, brought him to his senses, helped too, by the thought of his mother and Mary, and love of the pleasant world up above. The folly and uselessness of being drowned in a ditch on a point of honor stood out before him as clearly as if he had been thinking of nothing else all his life; and he let go his hold-much relieved to find that his companion of the bath seemed equally willing to be quit of him-and struggled to the surface, and seized the bank, gasping and exhausted.

His first thought was to turn round and look for his adversary. The poacher was by the bank too, a few feet from him. His cap had fallen off in the struggle, and, all chance of concealment being over, he too had turned to face the matter out, and their eyes met.

"Good God! Harry! is it you?"

Harry Winburn answered nothing; and the two dragged their feet out of the muddy bottom, and scrambled on to the bank, and then with a sort of common instinct sat down, dripping and foolish, each on the place he had reached, and looked at one another. Probably two more thoroughly bewildered lieges of her Majesty were not at that moment facing one another in any corner of the United Kingdom.

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