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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 26509

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

The last knot of the dancers came out of the club, and were strolling up St. James's Street, and stopping to chaff the itinerant coffee vendor, who was preparing his stand at the corner of Piccadilly for his early customers, just about the time that Tom was beginning to rouse himself under the alder-tree, and stretch his stiffened limbs, and sniff the morning air. By the time the guardsman had let himself into his lodgings in Mount Street, our hero had undergone his unlooked for bath, and was sitting in a state of utter bewilderment as to what was next to be said or done, dripping and disconcerted, opposite to the equally dripping and, to all appearance, equally disconcerted, poacher.

At first he did not look higher than his antagonist's boots and gaiters, and spent a few seconds by the way in considering whether the arrangement of nails on the bottom of Harry's boots was better than his own. He settled that it must be better for wading on slippery stones, and that he would adopt it, and then passed on to wonder whether Harry's boots were as full of water as his own, and whether corduroys, wet through, must not be very uncomfortable so early in the morning, and congratulated himself on being in flannels.

And so he hung back for second after second, playing with an absurd little thought that would come into his head and give him ever so brief a respite from the effort of facing the situation, and hoping that Harry might do or say something to open the ball. This did not happen. He felt that the longer he waited the harder it would be. He must begin himself. So he raised his head gently, and took a sidelong look at Harry's face, to see whether he could not get some hint for starting, from it. But scarcely had he brought his eyes to bear, when they met Harry's, peering dolefully up from under his eyebrows, on which the water was standing unwiped, while a piece of green weed, which he did not seem to have presence of mind enough to remove, trailed over his dripping locks. There was something in the sight which tickled Tom's sense of humor. He had been prepared for sullen black looks and fierce words, instead of which he was irresistibly reminded of schoolboys caught by their master using a crib, or in other like flagrant delict.

Harry lowered his eyes at once, but lifted them the next moment with a look of surprise, as he heard Tom burst into a hearty fit of laughter. After a short struggle to keep serious, he joined in it himself.

"By Jove, though, Harry, it's no laughing matter," Tom said at last, getting on to his legs, and giving himself a shake.

Harry only replied by looking most doleful again, and picking the weed out of his hair, as he too got up.

"What in the world's to be done?"

"I'm sure I don't know, Master Tom."

"I'm very much surprised to find you at this work, Harry."

"I'm sure, so be I, to find you, Master Tom."

Tom was not prepared for this line of rejoinder. It seemed to be made with perfect innocence, and yet it put him in a corner at once. He did not care to inquire into the reason of Harry's surprise, or to what work he alluded; so he went off on another tack.

"Let us walk up and down a bit to dry ourselves. Now, Harry, you'll speak to me openly, man to man, as an old friend should-won't you?"

"Ay, Master Tom, and glad to do it."

"How long have you taken to poaching?"

"Since last Michaelmas, when they turned me out o' our cottage, and tuk away my bit o' land, and did all as they could to break me down."

"Who do you mean?"

"Why, Squire Wurley as was then-not this one, but the last-and his lawyer, and Farmer Tester."

"Then it was through spite to them that you took to it?"

"Nay, 'twarn't altogether spite, tho' I won't say but what I might ha' thought o' bein' upsides wi them."

"What was it then besides spite?"

"Want o' work. I havn't had no more'n a matter o' six weeks' reg'lar work ever since last fall."

"How's that? Have you tried for it?"

"Well, Master Tom, I won't tell a lie about it. I don't see as I wur bound to go round wi my cap in my hand a beggin' for a day's work to the likes o' them. They knowed well enough as I wur there, ready and willing to work, and they knowed as I wur able to do as good a day's work as e'er man in the parish; and ther's been plenty o' work goin'. But they thought as I should starve, and have to come and beg for't from one or to'ther on 'em. They would ha' liked to ha' seen me clean broke down, that's wut they would, and in the house," and he paused as if his thoughts were getting a little unmanageable.

"But you might have gone to look for work elsewhere."

"I can't see as I had any call to leave the place where I wur bred up, Master Tom. That wur just wut they wanted. Why should I let 'em drive m'out?"

"Well, Harry, I'm not going to blame you. I only want to know more about what has been happening to you, that I may be able to advise and help you. Did you ever try for work, or go and tell your story, at the Rectory?"

"Try for work there! No, I never went arter work there."

Tom went on without noticing the change in Harry's tone and manner-

"Then I think you ought to have gone. I know my cousin, Miss Winter, is so anxious to help any man out of work, and particularly you; for-" The whole story of Patty flashed into his mind, and made him stop short and stammer, and look anywhere except at Harry. How he could have forgotten it for a moment in that company was a wonder. All his questioning and patronizing powers went out of him and he felt that their positions were changed, and that he was the culprit. It was clear that Harry knew nothing yet of his own relations with Patty. Did he even suspect them? It must all come out now at any rate, for both their sakes, however it might end. So he turned again, and met Harry's eye, which was now cold and keen, and suspicious.

"You knows all about it, then?"

"Yes; I know that you have been attached to Simon's daughter for a long time, and that he is against it; I wish I could help you, with all my heart. In fact, I did feel my way towards speaking to him about it last year, when I was in hopes of getting you the gardener's place. But I could see that I should do no good."

"I've heard say as you was acquainted with her, when she was away?"

"Yes, I was, when she was with her aunt in Oxford. What then?"

"'Twas there as she larnt her bad ways."

"Bad ways! What do you mean?"

"I means as she larnt to dress fine, and to gee herself airs to them as she'd known from a child, and as'd ha' gone through fire to please her."

"I never saw anything of the kind in her. She was a pleasant, lively girl, and dressed neatly, but never above her station. And I'm sure she has too good a heart to hurt an old friend."

"Wut made her keep shut up in the house when she cum back? ah, for days and weeks;-and arter that, wut made her so flighty and fickle? carryin' herself as proud as a lady a mincin' and a trapesin' along, wi' all the young farmer's a follerin' her, like a fine gentleman's miss."

"Come, Harry, I won't listen to that. You don't believe what you're saying, you know her better."

"You knows her well enough by all seeming."

"I know her too well to believe any harm of her."

"What call have you and the likes o' you wi' her? 'Tis no good comes o' such company keepin'."

"I tell you again, no harm has come of it to her."

"Whose hair does she carry about then in that gold thing as she hangs around her neck?"

Tom blushed scarlet, and lowered his eyes without answering.

"Dost know? 'Tis thine, by-." The words came hissing out between his set teeth. Tom put his hands behind him, expecting to be struck as he lifted his eyes, and said,-

"Yes, it is mine; and, I tell you again, no harm has come of it."

"'Tis a lie. I knowed how 'twas, and 'tis thou hast done it."

"Tom's blood tingled in his veins, and wild words rushed to his tongue, as he stood opposite the man who had just given him the lie, and who waited his reply with clinched hands, and laboring breast, and fierce eye. But the discipline of the last year stood him in good stead. He stood for a moment or two, crushing his hands together behind his back, drew a long breath, and answered,-

"Will you believe my oath, then? I stood by your side at your mother's grave. A man who did that won't lie to you, Harry. I swear to you there's no wrong between me and her. There never was fault on her side. I sought her. She never cared for me, she doesn't care for me. As for that locket, I forced it on her. I own I have wronged her, and wronged you. I have repented it bitterly. I ask your forgiveness, Harry; for the sake of old times, for the sake of your mother!" He spoke from the heart, and saw that his words went home. "Come, Harry" he went on, "you won t turn from an old playfellow, who owns the wrong he has done, and will do all he can to make up for it. You'll shake hands, and say you forgive me."

Tom paused, and held out his hand.

The poacher's face worked violently for a moment or two, and he seemed to struggle once or twice to get his hand out in vain. At last he struck it suddenly into Tom's, turning his head away at the same time. "'Tis what mother would ha' done," he said, "thou cassn't say more. There tis then, though I never thought to do't."

This curious and unexpected explanation, brought thus to a happy issue, put Tom into high spirits, and at once roused the castle-building power within him, which was always ready enough to wake up.

His first care was to persuade Harry that he had better give up poaching, and in this he had much less difficulty than he expected. Harry owned himself sick of the life he was leading already. He admitted that some of the men with whom he had been associating more or less for the last year were the greatest blackguards in the neighborhood. He asked nothing better than to get out of it. But how?

This was all Tom wanted. He would see to that; nothing could be easier.

"I shall go with you back to Englebourn this morning. I'll just leave a note for Wurley to say that I'll be back some time in the day to explain matters to him, and then we will be off at once. We shall be at the rectory by breakfast time. Ah, I forgot;-well, you can stop at David's while I go and speak to my uncle and to Miss Winter."

Harry didn't seem to see what would be the good of this; and

David, he said, was not so friendly to him as he had been.

"Then you must wait at the Red Lion. Don't see the good of it! Why, of course, the good of it is that you must be set right with the Englebourn people-that's the first thing to do. I shall explain how the case stands to my uncle, and I know that I can get him to let you have your land again if you stay in the parish, even if he can't give you work himself. But what he must do is, to take you up, to show people that he is your friend, Harry. Well then, if you can get good work-mind it must be real, good, regular work-at Farmer Grove's, or one of the best farmers, stop here by all means, and I will myself take the first cottage which falls vacant and let you have it, and meantime you must lodge with old David. Oh, I'll go and talk him round, never fear. But if you can't get regular work here, why you go off with flying colors; no sneaking off under a cloud and leaving no address. You'll go off with me, as my servant, if you like. But just as you please about that. At any rate, you'll go with me, and I'll take care that it shall be known that I consider you as an old friend. My father has always got plenty of work and will take you on. And then, Harry, after a bit you may be sure all will go right, and I shall be your best man, and dance at your wedding before a year's out."

There is something in this kind of thing which is contagious and irresistible. Tom thoroughly believed all that he was saying; and faith, even of such a poor kind as believing in one's own castles, has its reward. Common sense in vain suggested to Harry that all the clouds which had been gathering round him for a year were not likely to melt away in a morning. Prudence suggested that the sooner he got away the better; which suggestion, indeed, he handed on for what it was worth. But Tom treated prudence with sublime contempt. They would go together, he said, as soon as any one was up at the house, just to let him in to change his things and write a note. Harry needn't fear any unpleasant consequences. Wurley wasn't an ill-natured fellow at bottom, and wouldn't mind a few fish. Talking of fish, where was the one he heard kicking just now as Harry hauled in the line. They went to the place, and, looking in the long grass, soon found the dead trout, still on the night-line, of which the other end remained in the water. Tom seized hold of it, and pulling it carefully in, landed landed another fine trout, while Harry stood by, looking rather sheepish. Tom inspected the method of the lines, which was simple but awfully destructive. The line was long enough to reach across the stream. At one end was a heavy stone, at the other a short stake cut sharp, and driven into the bank well under the water. At intervals of

four feet along the line short pieces of fine gimp were fastened, ending in hooks baited alternately with lob-worms and gudgeon. Tom complimented his companion on the killing nature of his cross-line.

"Where are your other lines, Harry?" he asked; "we may as well go and take them up."

"A bit higher up stream, Master Tom;" and so they walked up stream and took up the other lines.

"They'll have the finest dish of fish they've seen this long time at the house to-day," said Tom, as each line came out with two or three fine thick-shouldered fish on it. "I'll you what, Harry, they're deuced well set, these lines of yours, and do you credit. They do; I'm not complimenting you."

"I should rather like to be off, Master Tom, if you don't object. The mornin's gettin' on, and the men will be about. 'Twould be unked for I to be caught."

"Well, Harry, if you are so set on it off with you, but"-

"'Tis too late now; here's keeper."

Tom turned sharp round, and, sure enough, there was the keeper coming down the bank towards them, and not a couple of hundred yards off.

"So it is," said Tom; "well, only hold your tongue, and do just what I tell you."

The keeper came up quickly, and touching his hat to Tom, looked inquiringly at him, and then at Harry. Tom nodded to him, as if everything were just as it should be. He was taking a two-pound fish off the last line; having finished which feat he threw it on the ground by the rest. "There keeper," he said, "there's a fine dish of fish. Now, pick 'em up and come along."

Never was keeper more puzzled. He looked from one to the other, lifting the little short hat from the back of his head, and scratching that somewhat thick skull of his, as his habit was when engaged in what he called thinking, conscious that somebody ought to be tackled, and that he, the keeper, was being mystified, but quite at sea as to how he was to set himself straight.

"Wet, bain't 'ee, sir?" he said at last, nodding at Tom's clothes.

"Dampish, keeper," answered Tom; "I may as well go and change, the servants will be up at the house by this time. Pick up the fish and come along. You do up the lines, Harry."

The keeper and Harry performed their tasks, looking at one another out of the corners of their eyes like the terriers of rival butchers when the carts happen to stop suddenly in the street close to one another. Tom watched them, mischievously delighted with the fun, and then led the way up to the house. When they came to the stable-yard he turned to Harry, and said, "Stop here, I shan't be ten minutes;" adding, in an undertone, "Hold your tongue now;" he then vanished through the dark door, and, hurrying up to his room, changed as quickly as he could.

He was within the ten minutes, but, as he descended the back stairs in his dry things, became aware that his stay had been too long. Noise and laughter came up from the stable-yard, and shouts of, "Go it keeper," "Keeper's down," "No he bain't," greeted his astonished ears. He sprang down the last steps and rushed into the stable-yard, where he found Harry at his second wrestling match for the day, while two or three stablemen, and a footman, and the gardener, looked on and cheered the combatants with the remarks he had heard on his way down.

Tom made straight to them, and tapping Harry on the shoulder, said-

"Now then, come along, I'm ready."

Whereupon the keeper and Harry disengaged, and the latter picked up his cap.

"You bain't goin', sir!" said the keeper.

"Yes, keeper."

"Not along wi' he?"

"Yes, keeper."

"What, bain't I to take un?"

"Take him! No, what for?"

"For night poachin', look at all them fish," said the keeper indignantly, pointing to the shining heap.

"No, no, keeper, you've nothing to do with it. You may give him the lines though, Harry. I've left a note for your master on my dressing table," Tom said, turning to the footman, "let him have it at breakfast. I'm responsible for him," nodding at Harry, "I shall be back in a few hours, and now come along."

And, to the keeper's astonishment, Tom left the stable-yard, accompanied by Harry.

They were scarcely out of hearing before the stable-yard broke out into uproarious laughter at the keeper's expense and much rude banter was inflicted on him for letting the poacher go. But the keeper's mind for the moment was full of other things. Disregarding their remarks he went on scratching his head, and burst out at last with-

"Dang un! I knows I should ha' drowed un."

"Drow your grandmother," politely remarked one of the stablemen, an acquaintance of Harry Winburn, who knew his repute as a wrestler.

"I should, I tell 'ee," said the keeper as he stooped to gather up the fish, "and to think as he should ha' gone off. Master 'll be like any wild beast when he hears on't. How s'mever, 'tis Mr. Brown's doin's. 'Tis a queer start for a gen'l'man like he to be goin' off wi' a poacher chap and callin' of un Harry. 'Tis past me altogether. But I s'pose he bain't right in's 'ead;" and, so soliloquizing, he carried off the fish to the kitchen.

Meantime, on their walk to Englebourn, Harry, in answer to Tom's inquiries, explained that in his absence the stable-man, his acquaintance, had come up and begun to talk. The keeper had joined in and accused him point-blank of being the man who had thrown him into the furze bush. The story of the keeper's discomfiture on that occasion being well known, a laugh had been raised in which Harry had joined. This brought on a challenge to try a fall then and there, which Harry had accepted, notwithstanding his long morning's work and the ducking he had had. They laughed over the story, though Harry could not help expressing his fears as to how it might all end. They reached Englebourn in time for breakfast. Tom appeared at the rectory, and soon he and Katie were on their old terms. She was delighted to find that he had had an explanation with Harry Winburn; and that there was some chance of bringing that sturdy offender once more back into decent ways;-more delighted perhaps to hear the way in which he spoke of Patty, to whom after breakfast she paid a visit, and returned in due time with the unfortunate locket.

Tom felt as if another coil of the chain he had tied about himself had fallen off. He went out into the village, consulted again with Harry, and returned again to the rectory, to consider what steps were to be taken to get him work. Katie entered into the matter heartily, though forseeing the difficulties in the case. At luncheon the rector was to be sounded on the subject of the allotments. But in the middle of their plans, they were startled by the news that a magistrate's warrant had arrived in the village for the arrest of Harry as a night poacher.

Tom returned to the Grange furious, and before night had had a worse quarrel with young Wurley than with his uncle before him. Had duelling been in fashion still in England, they would probably have fought in a quiet corner of the park before night. As it was they only said bitter things, and parted, agreeing not to know one another in the future.

Three days afterwards, at petty sessions, where Tom brought upon himself the severe censure of the bench for his conduct on the trial, Harry Winburn was committed to Reading gaol for three months.

Readers who will take the trouble to remember the picture of our hero's mental growth during the past year, attempted to be given in a late chapter, and the state of restless dissatisfaction into which his experiences and thoughts and readings had thrown him by the time long vacation had come around again, will perhaps be prepared for the catastrophe which ensued on the conviction and sentence of Harry Winburn at petty sessions.

Hitherto, notwithstanding the strength of the new and revolutionary forces which were mustering round it, there had always been a citadel holding out in his mind, garrisoned by all that was best in the Toryism in which he had been brought up-by loyalty, reverence for established order and established institutions; by family traditions, and the pride of an inherited good name. But now the walls of that citadel went down with a crash, the garrison being put to the sword, or making away, to hide in an out of the way corner, and wait for a reaction.

It was much easier for a youngster, whose attention was once turned to such subjects as had been occupying Tom, to get hold of wild and violent beliefs and notions in those days than now. The state of Europe generally was far more dead and hopeless. There were no wars, certainly, and no expectations of wars. But there was a dull, beaten-down, pent-up feeling abroad, as if the lid were screwed down on the nations, and the thing which had been, however cruel and heavy and mean, was that which was to remain to the end. England was better off than her neighbours, but yet in bad case. In the south and west particularly, several causes had combined, to spread a very bitter feeling abroad amongst the agricultural poor. First among these stood the new poor law, the provisions of which were vigorously carried out in most districts. The poor had as yet felt the harshness only of the new system. Then the land was in many places in the hands of men on their last legs, the old sporting farmers, who had begun business as young men while the great war was going on, had made their money hand over hand for a few years out of the war prices, and had tried to go on living with greyhounds and yeomanry uniforms-"horse to ride and weapon to wear"-through the hard years which had followed. These were bad masters every way, unthrifty, profligate, needy, and narrow-minded. The younger men who were supplanting them were introducing machinery, threshing machines and winnowing machines, to take the little bread which a poor man was still able to earn out of the mouths of his wife and children-so at least the poor thought and muttered to one another; and the mutterings broke out every now and then in the long nights of the winter months in blazing ricks and broken machines. Game preserving was on the increase. Australia and America had not yet become familiar words in every English village, and the labour market was everywhere overstocked; and, last but not least, the corn laws were still in force, and the bitter and exasperating strife in which they went out was at its height. And while Swing and his myrmidons were abroad in the counties, and could scarcely be kept down by yeomanry and poor law guardians, the great towns were in almost worse case. Here too emigration had not set in to thin the labour market; wages were falling, and prices rising; the corn law struggle was better understood and far keener than in the country; and Chartism was gaining force every day, and rising into a huge threatening giant, waiting to put forth his strength, and eager for the occasion which seemed at hand.

You generation of young Englishmen, who were too young then to be troubled with such matters, and have grown into manhood since, you little know-may you never know!-what it is to be living the citizens of a divided and distracted nation. For the time that danger is past. In a happy home and so far as man can judge, in time, and only just in time, came the repeal of the corn laws, and the great cause of strife and the sense of injustice passed away out of men's minds. The nation was roused by the Irish famine, and the fearful distress in other parts of the country, to begin looking steadily and seriously at some of the sores which were festering in its body, and undermining health and life. And so the tide had turned, and England had already passed the critical point; when 1848 came upon Christendom, and the whole of Europe leapt up into a wild blaze of revolution.

Is anyone still inclined to make light of the danger that threatened England in that year, to sneer at the 10th of April, and the monster petition, and the monster meetings on Kennington and other commons? Well, if there be such persons among my readers, I can only say that they can have known nothing of what was going on around them and below them, at that time, and I earnestly hope that their vision has become clearer since then, and that they are not looking with the same eyes that see nothing, at the signs of today. For that there are questions still to be solved by us in England, in this current half-century, quite as likely to tear the nation to pieces as the corn laws, no man with half an eye in his head can doubt. They may seem little clouds like a man's hand on the horizon just now, but they will darken the whole heaven before long, unless we can find wisdom enough amongst us to take the little clouds in hand in time, and make them descend in soft rain.

But such matters need not be spoken of here. All I want to do is to put my young readers in a position to understand how it was that our hero fell away into beliefs and notions, at which Mrs. Grundy and all decent people could only lift up eyes and hands in pious and respectable horror, and became, soon after the incarceration of his friend for night poaching, little better than a physical force Chartist at the age of twenty-one.

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