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   Chapter 40 HUE AND CRY

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 22974

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


At the end of a gusty wild October afternoon, a man, leading two horses, was marching up and down the little plot of short turf at the top of the Hawk's Lynch. Every now and then he would stop on the brow of the hill to look over the village, and seemed to be waiting for somebody from that quarter. After being well blown, he would turn to his promenade again, or go in under the clump of firs, through which the rising south-west wind, rushing up from the vale below, was beginning to make a moan; and, hitching the horses to some stump or bush, and patting and coaxing them to induce them, if so might be, to stand quiet for a while, would try to settle himself to leeward of one of the larger trees.

But the fates were against all attempts at repose. He had scarcely time to produce a cheroot from his case and light it under many difficulties, when the horses would begin fidgeting, and pulling at their bridles, and shifting round to get their tails to the wind. They clearly did not understand the necessity of the position, and were inclined to be moving stable-wards. So he had to get up again, sling the bridles over his arm, and take to his march up and down the plot of turf; now stopping for a moment or two to try to get his cheroot to burn straight, and pishing and pshawing over its perverseness; now going again and again to the brow, and looking along the road which led to the village, holding his hat on tight with one hand,-for by this time it was blowing half a gale of wind.

Though it was not yet quite the hour for his setting, the sun had disappeared behind a heavy bank of wicked slate-coloured cloud, which looked as though it were rising straight up into the western heavens, while the wind whirled along and twisted into quaint shapes a ragged rift of white vapor, which went hurrying by, almost touching the tops of the moaning firs,-altogether an uncanny evening to be keeping tryst at the top of a wild knoll; and so thought our friend with the horses, and showed it, too, clearly enough, had anyone been there to put a construction on his impatient movements.

There was no one nearer than the village, of which the nearest house was half a mile and more away; so, by way of passing the time, we must exercise our privilege of putting into words what he is half thinking, half muttering to himself:-

"A pleasant night I call this, to be out on a wild goose chase. If ever I saw a screaming storm brewing, there it comes. I'll be hanged if I stop up here to be caught in it for all the crack-brained friends I ever had in the world; and I seem to have a faculty for picking up none but crack-brained ones. I wonder what the plague can keep him so long; he must have been gone an hour. There, steady, steady, old horse. Confound this weed! What rascals these tobacconists are! You never can get a cheroot now worth smoking. Every one of them goes sputtering up the side, or charring up the middle, and tasting like tow soaked in saltpetre and tobacco juice. Well, I suppose I shall get the real thing in India."

"India! In a month from to-day we shall be off. To hear our senior major talk, one might as well be going to the bottomless pit at once. Well, he'll sell out-that's a comfort. Gives us a step, and gets rid of an old ruffian. I don't seem to care much what the place is like if we only get some work; and there will be some work there before long, by all accounts. No more garrison-town life, at any rate. And if I have any luck-a man may get a chance there."

"What the deuce can he be about? This all comes of sentiment, now. Why couldn't I go quietly off to India without bothering up to Oxford to see him? Not but what it's a pleasant place enough. I've enjoyed my three days there uncommonly. Food and drink all that can be wished, and plenty of good fellows and fun. The look of the place, too, makes one feel respectable. But, by George, if their divinity is at all like their politics, they must turn out a queer set of parsons-at least if Brown picked up his precious notions at Oxford. He always was a headstrong beggar. What was it he was holding forth about last night? Let's see. 'The sacred right of insurrection.' Yes, that was it, and he talked as if he believed it all too; and if there should be a row, which don't seem unlikely, by Jove, I think he'd act on it, in the sort of temper he's in. How about the sacred right of getting hung or transported? I shouldn't wonder to hear of that some day. Gad! suppose he should be in for an installment of his sacred right to-night. He's capable of it, and of lugging me in with him. What did he say we were come here for? To get some fellow out of a scrape, he said-some sort of poaching radical foster-brother of his, who had been in gaol, and deserved it too, I'll be bound. And he couldn't go down quietly into the village and put up at the public, where I might have set in the tap, and not run the chance of having my skin blown over my ears, and my teeth down my throat, on this cursed look-out place, because he's too well known there. What does that mean? Upon my soul, it looks bad. They may be lynching a J. P. down there, or making a spread eagle of the parish constable at this minute, for anything I know, and as sure as fate, if they are, I shall get my foot in it."

"It will read sweetly in the naval and military intelligence-'A court-martial was held this day at Chatham, president, Colonel Smith, of Her Majesty's 101st Regiment, to try Henry East, a lieutenant in the same distinguished corps, who has been under arrest since the 10th ult., for aiding and abetting the escape of a convict, and taking part in a riot in the village of Englebourn, in the county of Berks. The defense of the accused was that he had a sentimental friendship for a certain Thomas Brown, an undergraduate of St. Ambrose College, Oxford, &c. &c.; and the sentence of the Court-'

"Hang it! It's no laughing matter. Many a fellow has been broken for not making half such a fool of himself as I have done, coming out here on this errand. I'll tell T. B. a bit of my mind as sure as-

"Hullo! didn't I hear a shout? Only the wind, I believe. How it does blow! One of these firs will be down, I expect, just now. The storm will burst in a quarter of an hour. Here goes! I shall ride down into the village, let what will come of it. Steady now-steady. Stand still you old fool; can't you?"

"There, now I'm all right. Solomon said something about a beggar on horseback. Was is Solomon, though? Never mind. He couldn't ride. Never had a horse till he was grown up. But he said some uncommon wise things about having to do with such friends as T. B. So, Harry East, if you please, no more tomfoolery after to-day. You've got a whole skin, and a lieutenant's commission to make your way in the world with, and are troubled with no particular crotchets yourself that need ever get you into trouble. So just you keep clear of other people's. And if your friends must be mending the world, and poor men's plastering, and running their heads against stone walls, why, just you let go of their coat tails."

So muttering and meditating, Harry East paused a moment after mounting, to turn up the collar of the rough shooting-coat which he was wearing, and button it up to the chin, before riding down the hill, when, in the hurly-burly of the wind, a shout came spinning past his ears, plain enough this time; he heard the gate at the end of Englebourn lane down below him shut with a clang, and saw two men running at full speed towards him, straight up the hill.

"Oh! here you are at last," he said, as he watched them. "Well, you don't lose your time now. Somebody must be after them. What's he shouting and waving his hand for? Oh, I'm to bring the cavalry supports down the slope, I suppose. Well, here goes; he has brought off his pal the convict I see-

Says he, you've 'scaped from transportation

All upon the briny main;

So never give way to no temptation,

And don't get drunk nor prig again!

There goes the gate again. By Jove, what's that? Dragoons, as I'm a sinner! There's going to be the d---st bear-fight."

Saying which, Harry East dug his heels into his horse's sides, holding him up sharply with the curb at the same time, and in another moment, was at the bottom of the solitary mound on which he had been perched for the last hour, and on the brow of the line of hill out of which it rose so abruptly, just at the point for which the two runners were making. He had only time to glance at the pursuers, and saw that one or two rode straight on the track of the fugitives, while the rest skirted away along a parish road which led up the hill side by an easier ascent, when Tom and his companion were by his side. Tom seized the bridle of the led horse, and was in the saddle with one spring.

"Jump up behind," he shouted; "now, then, come along."

"Who are they?" roared East,-in that wind nothing but a shout could be heard,-pointing over his shoulder with his thumb as they turned to the heath.

"Yeomanry."

"After you?"

Tom nodded, as they broke into a gallop, making straight across the heath towards the Oxford road. They were some quarter of a mile in advance before any of their pursuers showed over the brow of the hill behind them. It was already getting dusk, and the great bank of cloud was by this time all but upon them, making the atmosphere denser and darker every second. Then, first one of the men appeared who had ridden straight up the hill under the Hawk's Lynch, and, pulling up for a moment, caught sight of them and gave chase. Half a minute later, and several of those who had kept to the road were also in sight, some distance away on the left, but still near enough to be unpleasant; and they too after a moment's pause, were in full pursuit. At first the fugitives held their own, and the distance between them and their pursuers was not lessened; but it was clear that this could not last. Anything that horse-flesh is capable of, a real good Oxford hack, such as they rode, will do; but to carry two full-grown men at the end of a pretty long day, away from fresh horses and moderate weights, is too much to expect even of Oxford horse-flesh; and the gallant beast which Tom rode was beginning to show signs of distress when they struck into the road. There was a slight dip in the ground a this place, and a little further on the heath rose suddenly again, and the road ran between high banks for a short distance.

As they reached this point they disappeared for the moment from the yeomanry, and the force of the wind was broken by the banks, so that they could breathe more easily, and hear one another's voices.

Tom looked anxiously round at the lieutenant, who shrugged his shoulders in answer to the look, as he bent forward to ease his own horse, and said-

"Can't last another mile."

"What's to be done?"

East again shrugged his shoulders, but said nothing.

"I know, Master Tom," said Harry Winburn.

"What?"

"Pull up a bit, sir."

Tom pulled up, and his horse fell into a walk willingly enough, while East passed on a few strides ahead. Harry Winburn sprang off.

"You ride on now, Master Tom," he said, "I knows the heath well; you let me bide."

"No, no, Harry, not I. I won't leave you now, so let them come, and be hanged."

East had pulled up, and listened to their talk.

"Look here, now," he said to Harry; "put your arm over the hind part of hi

s saddle, and run by the side; you'll find you can go as fast as the horse. Now, you two push on, and strike across the heath. I'll keep the road, and take off this joker behind, who is the only dangerous customer."

"That's like you, old boy," said Tom, "then we'll meet at the first public beyond the heath." They passed ahead in their turn, and turned on to the heath, Harry running by the side, as the lieutenant had advised.

East looked after them, and then put his horse into a steady trot, muttering,

"Like me! yes, devilish like me; I know that well enough. Didn't I always play cat's-paw to his monkey at school? But that convict don't seem such a bad lot after all."

Meantime, Tom and Harry struck away over the heath, as the darkness closed in, and the storm drove down. They stumbled on over the charred furze roots, and splashed through the sloppy peat cuttings, casting anxious, hasty looks over their shoulders as they fled, straining every nerve to get on, and longing for night and the storm.

"Hark! wasn't that a pistol-shot?" said Tom, as they floundered on. The sound came from the road they had left.

"Look, here's some on 'em, then," said Harry; and Tom was aware of two horsemen coming over the brow of the hill on their left, some three hundred yards to the rear. At the same instant his horse stumbled, and came down on his nose and knees. Tom went off over his shoulder, tumbling against Harry, and sending him headlong to the ground, but keeping hold of the bridle. They were up again in a moment.

"Are you hurt?"

"No."

"Come along, then," and Tom was in the saddle again, when the pursuers raised a shout. They had caught sight of them now, and spurred down the slope towards them. Tom was turning his horse's head straight away, but Harry shouted,-

"Keep to the left, Master Tom,-to the left, right on."

It seemed like running into the lion's jaws, but he yielded, and they pushed on down the slope on which they were. Another shout of triumph rose on the howling wind; Tom's heart sank within him. The enemy was closing on them at every stride; another hundred yards, and they must meet at the bottom of the slope. What could Harry be dreaming of? The thought had scarcely time to cross his brain, when down went the two yeomen, horse and man, floundering in a bog above their horses' girths. At the same moment the storm burst on them, the driving mist and pelting rain. The chase was over. They could not have seen a regiment of men at fifty yards' distance.

"You let me lead the horse, Master Tom," shouted Harry Winburn; "I knowed where they was going; 'twill take they the best part o' the night to get out o' that, I knows."

"All right, let's get back to the road, then, as soon as we can," said Tom, surrendering his horse's head to Harry, and turning up his collar, to meet the pitiless deluge which was driving on their flanks. They were drenched to the skin in two minutes; Tom jumped off, and plodded along on the opposite side of his horse to Harry. They did not speak; there was very little to be said under the circumstances, and a great deal to be thought about.

Harry Winburn probably knew the heath as well as any man living, but even he had much difficulty in finding his way back to the road through that storm. However, after some half-hour, spent in beating about, they reached it, and turned their faces northwards towards Oxford. By this time night had come on; but the fury of the storm had passed over them, and the moon began to show every now and then through the driving clouds. At last Tom roused himself out of the brown study in which he had been hitherto plodding along, and turned down his coat collar, and shook himself, and looked up at the sky, and across at his companion, who was still leading the horse along mechanically. It was too dark to see his face, but his walk and general look were listless and dogged; at last Tom broke silence.

"You promised not to do anything, after you came out, without speaking to me." Harry made no reply; so presently he went on:-

"I didn't think you'd have gone in for such a business as that to-night. I shouldn't have minded so much if it had only been machine-breaking; but robbing the cellar and staving in the ale casks and maiming cattle-"

"I'd no hand in that," interrupted Harry.

"I'm glad to hear it. You were certainly leaning against the gate when I came up, and taking no part in it; but you were one of the leaders of the riot."

"He brought it on hisself," said Harry, doggedly. "Tester is a bad man, I know that; and the people have much to complain of: but nothing can justify what was done to-night." Harry made no answer.

"You're known, and they'll be after you the first thing in the morning. I don't know what's to be done."

"'Tis very little odds what happens to me."

"You've no right to say that, Harry. Your friends-"

"I ain't got no friends."

"Well, Harry, I don't think you ought to say that after what has happened to-night. I don't mean to say that my friendship has done you much good yet; but I've done what I could, and-"

"So you hev', Master Tom, so you hev'."

"And I'll stick by you through thick and thin, Harry. But you must take heart and stick by yourself, or we shall never pull you through." Harry groaned, and then, turning at once to what was always uppermost in his mind, said,-

"'Tis no good, now I've been in gaol. Her father wur allus agin me. And now, how be I ever to hold up my head at whoam? I seen her once arter I came out."

"Well, and what happened?" said Tom, after waiting a moment or two.

"She just turned red and pale, and was all flustered like, and made as though she'd have held out her hand; and then tuk and hurried off like a frightened hare, as though she heerd somebody comin'. Ah! 'tis no good! 'tis no good!"

"I don't see anything very hopeless in that," said Tom.

"I've knowed her since she wur that high," went on Harry, holding out his hand about as high as the bottom of his waistcoat, without noticing the interruption, "when her and I went gleanin' together. 'Tis what I've thought on, and lived for. 'Tis four year and better since she and I broke a sixpence auver't. And at times it sim'd as tho' 'twould all cum right, when my poor mother wur livin', tho' her never tuk to it kindly, mother didn't. But 'tis all gone now! and I be that mad wi' myself, and mammered, and down, I be ready to hang myself, Master Tom; and if they just teks and transports me-"

"Oh, nonsense, Harry! You must keep out of that. We shall think of some way to get you out of that before morning. And you must get clear away, and go to work on the railways or somewhere. There's nothing to be downhearted about as far as Patty is concerned."

"Ah! 'tis they as wears it as knows where the shoe pinches. You'd say different if 'twas you, Master Tom."

"Should I?" said Tom; and, after pausing a moment or two, he went on. "What I'm going to say is in confidence. I've never told it to any man yet, and only one has found it out. Now, Harry, I'm much worse off than you are at this minute. Don't I know where the shoe pinches! Why I haven't seen-I've scarcely heard of-of-well, of my sweetheart-there, you'll understand that-for this year and more. I don't know when I may see her again. I don't know that she hasn't clean forgotten me. I don't know that she ever cared a straw for me. Now you know quite well that you are better off than that."

"I bean't so sure o' that, Master Tom. But I be terrible vexed to hear about you."

"Never mind about me. You say you're not sure, Harry. Come, now, you said, not two minutes ago, that you two had broken a sixpence over it. What does that mean, now?"

"Ah! but 'tis four years gone. Her's been a leadin' o' me up and down, and a dancin' o' me round and round purty nigh ever since, let alone the time as she wur at Oxford, when-"

"Well, we won't talk of that, Harry. Come, will yesterday do for you? If you thought she was all right yesterday, would that satisfy you?"

"Ees; and summat to spare."

"You don't believe it, I see. Well, why do you think I came after you to-night? How did I know what was going on?"

"That's just what I've been a-axin' o' myself as we cum along."

"Well, then, I'll tell you. I came because I got a note from her yesterday at Oxford." Tom paused, for he heard a muttered growl from the other side of the horse's head, and could see, even in the fitful moonlight, the angry toss of the head with which his news was received, "I didn't expect this, Harry," he went on presently, "after what I told you just now about myself, it was a hard matter to tell it at all; but, after telling you, I didn't think you'd suspect me any more. However, perhaps I've deserved it. So, to go on with what I was saying, two years ago, when I came to my senses about her, and before I cared for anyone else, I told her to write if ever I could do her a service. Anything that a man could do for his sister I was bound to do for her, and I told her so. She never answered till yesterday, when I got this note," and he dived into the inner breast pocket of his shooting. coat. "If it isn't soaked to pulp, it's in my pocket now. Yes, here it is," and he produced a dirty piece of paper, and handed it across to his companion. "When there's light enough to read it, you'll see plain enough what she means, though your name is not mentioned."

Having finished his statement, Tom retired into himself, and walked along watching the hurrying clouds. After they had gone some hundred yards, Harry cleared his throat once or twice, and at last broke out,-

"Master Tom."

"Well."

"You bean't offended wi' me, sir, I hopes?"

"No, why should I be offended?"

"'Cause I knows I be so all-fired jealous, I can't a'bear to hear o' her talkin', let alone writin' to-"

"Out with it. To me, you were going to say."

"Nay, 'tis mwore nor that."

"All right, Harry, if you only lump me with the rest of mankind, I don't care. But you needn't be jealous of me, and you mustn't be jealous of me, or I sha'n't be able to help you as I want to do. I'll give you my hand and word on it as man to man, there's no thought in my heart towards her that you mightn't see this minute. Do you believe me?"

"Ees; and you'll forgive-"

"There's nothing to forgive, Harry. But now you'll allow your case isn't such a bad one. She must keep a good lookout after you to know what you were likely to be about to-day. And if she didn't care for you, she wouldn't have written to me. That's good sense, I think."

Harry assented, and then Tom went into a consideration of what was to be done, and, as usual, fair castles began to rise in the air. Harry was to start down the line at once, and take work on the railway. In a few weeks he would be captain of a gang, and then what was to hinder his becoming a contractor, and making his fortune, and buying a farm of his own at Englebourn? To all which Harry listened with open ears till they got off the heath, and came upon a small hamlet of some half-dozen cottages scattered along the road.

"There's a public here, I suppose," said Tom, returning to the damp realities of life. Harry indicated the humble place of entertainment for man and horse.

"That's all right. I hope we shall find my friend here;" and they went towards the light which was shining temptingly through the latticed window of the road-side inn.

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