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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 25673

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

"Stop! It looks so bright that there must be something going on.

Surely the yeomanry can never have come on here already?"

Tom laid his hand on the bridle, and they halted on the road opposite the public-house, which lay a little back, with an open space of ground before it. The sign-post, and a long water-trough for the horses of guests to drink at, were pushed forward to the side of road to intimate the whereabouts of the house, and the hack which Harry led was already drinking eagerly.

"Stay here for a minute, and I'll go to the window, and see what's up inside. It's very unlucky, but it will never do for us to go in if there are any people there."

Tom stole softly up to the window out of which the light came. A little scrap of a curtain was drawn across a portion of it, but he could see easily into the room on either side of the curtain. The first glance comforted him, for he saw at once that there was only one person in the kitchen; but who and what he might be was a puzzle. The only thing which was clear at a first glance was, that he was making himself at home.

The room was a moderate-sized kitchen, with a sanded floor, and a large fire-place; a high wooden screen, with a narrow seat in front of it, ran along the side on which the door from the entrance-passage opened. In the middle there was a long rough walnut table, on which stood a large loaf, some cold bacon and cheese, and a yellow jug; a few heavy rush-bottomed chairs and a settle composed the rest of the furniture. On the wall were a few samplers, a warming pan, and shelves with some common delf plates, and cups and saucers. But though the furniture was meagre enough, the kitchen had a look of wondrous comfort for a drenched mortal outside. Tom felt this keenly, and, after a glance round, fixed his attention on the happy occupant, with the view of ascertaining whether he would be a safe person to intrude on under the circumstances. He was seated on a low, three-cornered oak seat, with his back to the window, steadying a furze fagot on the fire with the poker. The fagot blazed and crackled, and roared up the chimney, sending out the bright flickering light which had attracted them, and forming a glorious top to the glowing clear fire of wood embers beneath, into which was inserted a long, funnel-shaped tin, out of which the figure helped himself to some warm compound, when he had settled the fagot to his satisfaction. He was enveloped as to his shoulders in a heavy, dirty-white coat, with huge cape and high collar, which hid the back of his head, such as was then in use by country carriers; but the garment was much too short for him, and his bare arms came out a foot beyond the end of the sleeves. The rest of his costume was even more eccentric, being nothing more or less than a coarse flannel petticoat, and his bare feet rested on the mat in front of the fire.

Tom felt a sudden doubt as to his sanity, which doubt was apparently shared by the widow woman, who kept the house, and her maid-of-all-work, one or other of whom might be seen constantly keeping an eye on their guest from behind the end of the wooden screen. However, it was no time to be over particular; they must rest before going further, and, after all, it was only one man. So Tom thought, and was just on the point of calling Harry to come on, when the figure turned round towards the window, and the face of the lieutenant disclosed itself between the high-peaked gills of the carrier's coat. Tom burst out into a loud laugh, and called out,-

"It's all right, come along."

"I'll just look to the hosses, Master Tom."

"Very well, and then come into the kitchen;" saying which, he hurried into the house, and after tumbling against the maid-of-all-work in the passage, emerged from behind the screen.

"Well, here we are at last, old fellow," he said, slapping East on the shoulder.

"Oh, it's you, is it? I thought you were in the lock-up by this time."

East's costume, as he sat looking up, with a hand on each knee, was even more ridiculous on a close inspection, and Tom roared with laughter again.

"I don't see the joke," said East without moving a muscle.

"You would, though, if you could see yourself. You wonderful old

Guy, where did you pick up that toggery?"

"The late lamented husband of the widow Higgs, our landlady, was the owner of the coat. He also bequeathed to her several pairs of breeches, which I have vainly endeavored to get into. The late lamented Higgs was an abominably small man. He must have been very much her worse half. So, in default of other clothing, the widow has kindly obliged me by the loan of one of her own garments."

"Where are your own clothes?"

"There," said East, pointing to a clothes' horse, which Tom had not hitherto remarked, which stood well into the chimney corner; "and they are dry, too," he went on, feeling them; "at least the flannel shirt and trousers are, so I'll get into them again."

"I say, ma'am," he called out, addressing the screen, "I'm going to change my things. So you had better not look in just now. In fact, we can call now, if we want anything."

At this strong hint the widow Higgs was heard bustling away behind the screen, and after her departure East got into some of his own clothes again, offering the cast-off garments of the Higgs family to Tom, who, however, declined, contenting himself with taking off his coat and waistcoat, and hanging them upon the horse. He had been blown comparatively dry in the last half-hour of his walk.

While East was making his toilet, Tom turned to the table, and made an assault on the bread and bacon, and then poured himself out a glass of beer and began to drink it, but was pulled up half way, and put it down with a face all drawn up into puckers by its sharpness.

"I thought you wouldn't appreciate the widow's tap," said East, watching him with a grin. "Regular whistle-belly vengeance, and no mistake! Here, I don't mind giving you some of my compound, though you don't deserve it."

So Tom drew his chair to the fire, and smacked his lips over the long-necked glass, which East handed to him.

"Ah! that's not bad tipple after such a ducking as we've had.

Dog's-nose, isn't it?"

East nodded.

"Well, old fellow, I will say you are the best hand I know at making the most of your opportunities. I don't know of anyone else who could have made such a good brew out of that stuff and a drop of gin."

East was not to be mollified by any such compliment. "Have you got many more such jobs as to-day's on hand? I should think they must interfere with reading."

"No. But I call to-day's a real good job."

"Do you? I don't agree. Of course it's a matter of taste. I have the honor of holding Her Majesty's commission; so I may be prejudiced, perhaps."

"What difference does it make whose commission you hold? You wouldn't hold any commission, I know, which would bind you to be a tyrant and oppress the weak and the poor."

"Humbug about your oppressing! Who is the tyrant, I should like to know, the farmer, or the mob that destroys his property? I don't call Swing's mob the weak and the poor."

"That's all very well; but I should like to know how you'd feel if you had no work and a starving family. You don't know what people have to suffer. The only wonder is that all the country isn't in a blaze; and it will be if things last as they are much longer. It must be a bad time which makes such men as Harry Winburn into rioters."

"I don't know anything about Harry Winburn. But I know there's a good deal to be said on the yeomanry side of the question."

"Well, now, East, just consider this-"

"No, I'm not in the humour for considering. I don't want to argue with you."

"Yes, that's always the way. You won't hear what a fellow's got to say, and then set him down for a mischievous fool, because he won't give up beliefs founded on the evidence of his own eyes, and ears, and reason."

"I don't quarrel with any of your beliefs. You've got 'em-I haven't-that's just the difference between us. You've got some sort of faith to fall back upon, in equality, and brotherhood, and a lot of cursed nonsense of that kind. So, I daresay, you could drop down into a navigator, or a shoeblack, or something in that way, to-morrow, and think it pleasant. You might rather enjoy a trip across the water at the expense of your country, like your friend the convict here."

"Don't talk such rot, man. In the first place, he isn't a convict; you know that well enough."

"He is just out of prison, at any rate. However, this sort of thing isn't my line of country at all. So the next time you want to do a bit of gaol delivery on your own hook, don't ask me to help you."

"Well, if I had known all that was going to happen, I wouldn't have asked you to come, old fellow. Come, give us another glass of your dog's-nose, and no more of your sermon, which isn't edifying."

The lieutenant filled the long-necked glass which Tom held out, with the creaming mixture, which he was nursing in the funnel-shaped tin. But he was not prepared to waive his right to lecture, and so continued, while Tom sipped his liquor with much relish, and looked comically across at his old schoolfellow.

"Some fellows have a call to set the world right-I haven't. My gracious sovereign pays me seven and sixpence a day; for which sum I undertake to be shot at on certain occasions and by proper persons, and I hope when the time comes I shall take it as well as another. But that doesn't include turning out to be potted at like a woodcock on your confounded Berkshire wilds by a turnip-headed yeoman. It isn't to be done at the figure."

"What in the world do you mean?"

"I mean just what I say."

"That one of those unspeakable yeomanry has been shooting at you?"

"Just so."

"No, you don't really mean it? Wh-e-e-w! Then that shot we heard was fired at you. 'Pon my honor, I'm very sorry."

"Much good your sorrow would have done me if your precious countryman had held straight."

"Well, what can I say more, East? If there's anything I can do to show you that I really am very sorry and ashamed at having brought you into such a scrape, only tell me what it is."

"I don't suppose your word would go for much at the Horse Guards, or I'd ask you to give me a character for coolness under fire."

"Come, I see you're joking now, old fellow. Do tell us how it happened."

"Well, when you turned off across the common, I pulled up for half a minute, and then held on at a steady slow trot. If I had pushed on ahead, my friend behind would have been just as likely to turn after you as after me. Presently I heard Number One coming tearing along behind; and as soon as he got from between the banks, he saw me and came straight after me down the road. You were well away to the left, so now I just clapped on a bit, to lead him further away from the right scent, and on he came, whooping and hallooing to me to pull up. I didn't see why I hadn't just as good a right to ride along the road at my own pace as he; so the more he shouted, the more I didn't stop. But the beggar had the legs of me. He was mounted on something deuced like a thoroughbred, and gained on me hand over hand. At last when I judged he must be about twenty yards behind, I thought I might as well have a look at him, so I just turned for a moment, when, by Jove, there was my lord, lugging a pistol out of his right holster. He shouted again to me to stop. I turned, ducked my head, and the next moment he pulled trigger, and missed me."

"And what happened then," said Tom, eagerly drawing a long breath.

"Why, I flatter myself I showed considerable generalship. If I had given him time to get at his other pistol, or his toasting fork, it was all up. I dived into my pocket, where by good luck there was some loose powder, and copper caps, and a snuff-box; upset the snuff, grabbed a handful of the mixture, and pulled hard at my horse. Next moment he was by my side, lifting his pistol to knock me over. So I gave him the mixture right in the face, and let him go by. Up went both his hands, and away went he and his horse, somewhere over the common out of sight. I just turned round, and walked quietly back. I didn't see the fun of accepting any more attacks in the rear. Then up rides Number Two, a broad-faced young farmer on a big gray horse, blowing like a grampus. He pulled up short when we met, and stared, and I walked past him. You never saw a fellow look more puzzled. I had regularly stale-mated him. However, he took heart, and shouted, 'had I met the Captain?' I said, 'A gentleman had ridden by on a bright bay.' 'That was he; which way had he gone?' So I pointed generally over the common, and Number Two departed; and then down came

the storm, and I turned again, and came on here."

"The Captain! It must have been Wurley, then, who fired at you."

"I don't know who it was. I only hope he won't be blinded."

"It's a strange business altogether," said Tom, looking into the fire; "I scarcely know what to think of it. We should never have pulled through but for you, that's certain."

"I know what to think of it well enough," said East. "But now let's hear what happened to you. They didn't catch you, of course?"

"No, but it was touch and go. I thought it was all up at one time, for Harry would turn right across their line. But he knew what he was about; there was a bog between us, and they came on right into it, and we left them floundering."

"The convict seems to have his head about him, then. Where is he, by the way? I'm curious to have a look at him."

"Looking after the horses. I'll call him in. He ought have something to drink."

Tom went to the door and called Harry, who came out from the rough shed which served as a stable, in his shirt, with a wisp of hay in his hand. He had stripped off coat, and waistcoat, and braces, and had been warming himself by giving the horses a good dressing.

"Why, Harry, you haven't had anything," said Tom; "come across and have a glass of something hot."

Harry followed into the kitchen, and stood by the end of the screen, looking rather uncomfortable, while Tom poured him out a glass of the hot mixture, and the lieutenant looked him over with keen eyes.

"There, take that off. How are the horses?"

"Pretty fresh, Master Tom; but they'd be the better of a bran mash, or somethin' cumfable. I've spoke to the missus about it, and 'tis ready to put on the fire."

"That's right then. Let them have it as quick as you can."

"Then I med fetch it and warm it up here, sir?" said Harry.

"To be sure; the sooner the better."

Harry took off his glass, making a shy sort of duck with his head, accompanied by "your health, sir," to each of his entertainers, and then disappeared into the back kitchen, returned with the mash, which he put on the fire, and went off to the stable again.

"What do you think of him?" said Tom.

"I like to see a fellow let his braces down when he goes to work," said East.

"It's not every fellow who would be strapping away at those horses, instead of making himself at home in the back kitchen."

"No, it isn't," said East.

"Don't you like his looks now?"

"He's not a bad sort, your convict."

"I say, I wish you wouldn't call him names."

"Very good; your unfortunate friend, then. What are you going to do with him?"

"That's just what I've been puzzling about all the way here. What do you think?" And then they drew to the fire again, and began to talk over Harry's prospects. In some ten minutes he returned to the kitchen for the mash, and this time drew a complimentary remark from the lieutenant.

Harry was passionately fond of animals, and especially of horses, and they found it out quickly enough as they always do. The two hacks were by this time almost fresh again, with dry coats, and feet well washed and cleansed; and while working at them, Harry had been thinking over all he had heard that evening, and what with the work and what with his thoughts, found himself getting more hopeful every minute. No one who had seen his face an hour before on the heath would have believed it was the same man who was now patting and fondling the two hacks as they disposed of the mash he had prepared for them. He leant back against the manger, rubbing the ears of Tom's hack-the one which had carried double so well in their first flight-gently with his two hands, while the delighted beast bent down its head, and pressed it against him, and stretched its neck, expressing in all manner of silent ways its equine astonishment and satisfaction. By the light of the single dip, Harry's face grew shorter and shorter, until at last, a quiet humorous look began to creep back into it.

As we have already taken the liberty of putting the thoughts of his betters into words, we must now do so for him; and, if he had expressed his thoughts in his own vernacular as he rubbed the hack's ears in the stable, his speech would have been much as follows:-

"How cums it as I be all changed like, as tho' sum un had tuk and rubbed all the downheartedness out o' me? Here I be, two days out o' gaol, wi' nothin' in the world but the things I stands in,-for in course I med just give up the bits o' things as is left at Daddy Collins's-and they all draggled wi' the wet-and I med be tuk in the mornin' and sent across the water; and yet I feels sum how as peert as a yukkel. So fur as I can see, 'tis jest nothin' but talkin' wi' our Master Tom. What a fine thing 'tis to be a schollard. And yet seemin'ly 'tis nothin' but talk arter all's said and done. But 'tis allus the same; whenever I gets talkin' wi' he, it all cums out as smooth as crame. Fust time as ever I seen him since we wur bwys he talked just as a do now; and then my poor mother died. Then he come in arter the funeral, and talked me up agen, till I thought as I wur to hev our cottage and all the land as I could do good by. But our cottage wur tuk away, and my 'lotment besides. Then cum last summer, and 'twur just the same agen arter his talk, but I got dree months auver that job. And now 'ere I be wi un agen, a-runnin' from the constable; and like to be tuk up and transpworted, and 'tis just the same; and I s'pose 'twill be just the same if ever I gets back, and sees un, and talks wi' un, if I be gwine to be hung. 'Tis a wunnerful thing to be a schollard, to be able to make things look all straight when they be ever so akkerd and unked."

And then Harry left off rubbing the horse's ears; and, pulling the damp piece of paper, which Tom had given him, out of his breeches' pocket, proceeded to flatten it out tenderly on the palm of his hand, and read it by the light of the dip, when the landlady came to inform him that the gentlefolk wanted him in the kitchen. So he folded his treasure up again, and went off to the kitchen. He found Tom standing with his back to the fire, while the lieutenant was sitting at the table, writing on a scrap of paper, which the landlady had produced after much hunting over of drawers. Tom began, with some little hesitation:-

"Oh, Harry, I've been talking matters over with my friend here, and I've changed my mind. It won't do after all for you to stay about at railway work, or anything of that sort. You see you wouldn't be safe. They'd be sure to trace you, and you'd get into trouble about this day's work. And then, after all, it's a very poor opening for a young fellow like you. Now, why shouldn't you enlist into Mr. East's regiment? You'll be in his company, and it's a splendid profession. What do you say now?"

East looked up at poor Harry, who was quite taken aback at this change in his prospects, and could only mutter, that he had never turned his mind to "sodgerin."

"It's just the thing for you," Tom went on. "You can write and keep accounts, and you'll get on famously. Ask Mr. East if you won't. And don't you fear about matters at home. You'll see that'll all come right. I'll pledge you my word it will, and I'll take care that you shall hear everything that goes on there; and, depend upon it, it's your best chance. You'll be back at Englebourn as a sergeant in no time, and be able to snap your fingers at them all. You'll come with us to Steventon station, and take the night train to London, and then in the morning go to Whitehall, and find Mr. East's sergeant. He'll give you a note to him, and they'll send you on to Chatham, where the regiment is. You think it's the best thing for him, don't you?" said Tom, turning to East.

"Yes; I think you'll do very well if you only keep steady. Here's a note to the sergeant, and I shall be back at Chatham in a day or two myself."

Harry took the note mechanically; he was quite unable yet to make any resistance.

"And now get something to eat as quick as you can, for we ought to be off. The horses are all right, I suppose?"

"Yes, Master Tom," said Harry, with an appealing look.

"Where are your coat and waistcoat, Harry?"

"They be in the stable, sir."

"In the stable! Why, they're all wet, then, still?"

"Oh, 'tis no odds about that, Master Tom."

"No odds! Get them in directly, and put them to dry here."

So Harry Winburn went off to the stable to fetch his clothes.

"He's a fine fellow," said East, getting up and coming to the fire; "I've taken quite a fancy to him, but he doesn't fancy enlisting."

"Poor fellow! he has to leave his sweetheart. It's a sad business, but it's the best thing for him, and you'll see he'll go."

Tom was right. Poor Harry came in and dried his clothes, and got his supper; and while he was eating it, and all along the road afterwards, till they reached the station at about eleven o'clock, pleaded in his plain way with Tom against leaving his own country side. And East listened silently, and liked him better and better.

Tom argued with him gently, and turned the matter round on all sides, putting the most hopeful face upon it; and, in the end, talked first himself and then Harry into the belief that it was the best thing that could have happened to him, and more likely than any other course of action to bring everything right between him and all the folk at Englebourn.

So they got into the train at Steventon in pretty good heart, with his fare paid, and half-a-sovereign in his pocket, more and more impressed in his mind with what a wonderful thing it was to be "a schollard."

The two friends rode back to Oxford at a good pace. They had both of them quite enough to think about, and were not in the humour for talk, had place and time served, so that scarce a word passed between them till they had left their horses at the livery stables, and were walking through the silent streets, a few minutes before midnight. Then East broke silence.

"I can't make out how you do it. I'd give half-a-year's pay to get the way of it."

"The way of what? What an you talking about?"

"Why, your way of shutting your eyes, and going in blind."

"Well, that's a queer wish for a fighting man," said Tom, laughing. "We always thought a rusher no good at school, and that the thing to learn was, to go in with your own eyes open, and shut up other people's."

"Ah but we hadn't cut our eye-teeth then. I look at these things from a professional point of view. My business is to get fellows to shut their eyes tight, and I begin to think you can't do it as it should be done, without shutting your own first."

"I don't take."

"Why, look at the way you talked your convict-I beg your pardon-your unfortunate friend-into enlisting tonight. You talked as if you believed every word you were saying to him."

"So I did."

"Well, I should like to have you for a recruiting sergeant, if you could only drop that radical bosh. If I had had to do it, instead of enlisting, he would have gone straight off and hung himself in the stable."

"I'm glad you didn't try your hand at it then."

"Look again at me. Do you think anyone but such a-well I don't want to say anything uncivil-a headlong dog like you could have got me into such a business as to-day's? Now I want to be able to get other fellows to make just such fools of themselves as I've made of myself to-day. How do you do it?"

"I don't know, unless it is that I can't help always looking at the best side of things myself, and so-"

"Most things haven't got a best side."

"Well, at the pretty good side, then."

"Nor a pretty good one."

"If they haven't got a pretty good one, it don't matter how you look at them, I should think."

"No, I don't believe it does-much. Still, I should like to be able to make a fool of myself, too, when I want, with the view of getting others to do ditto, of course."

"I wish I could help you, old fellow; but I don't see my way to it."

"I shall talk to our regimental doctor about it, and get put through a course of fool's-diet before we start for India."

"Flap-doodle, they call it, what fools are fed on. But it's odd that you should have broken out in this place, when all the way home I've been doing nothing but envying you your special talent."

"What's that?"

"Just the opposite one-the art of falling on your feet. I should like to exchange with you."

"You'd make a precious bad bargain of it, then."

"There's twelve striking. I must knock in. Good night. You'll be round to breakfast at nine."

"All right. I believe in your breakfasts, rather," said East, as they shook hands at the gate of St. Ambrose, into which Tom disappeared, while the lieutenant strolled back to the "Mitre."

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