MoboReader > Young Adult > Tom Brown at Oxford

   Chapter 42 THIRD YEAR

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 30799

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

East returned to his regiment in a few days, and at the end of the month the gallant 101st embarked for India. Tom wrote several letters to the lieutenant, inclosing notes to Harry, with gleanings of news from Englebourn, where his escape on the night of the riot had been a nine-days' wonder; and, now that he was fairly "'listed," and out of the way, public opinion was beginning to turn in his favor. In due course a letter arrived from the lieutenant, dated Cape Town, giving a prosperous account of the voyage so far. East did not say much about "your convict," as he still insisted on calling Harry; but the little he did say was very satisfactory, and Tom sent off this part of the letter to Katie, to whom he had confided the whole story, entreating her to make the best use of it in the interest of the young soldier. And, after this out-of-the-way beginning, he settled down into the usual routine of his Oxford life.

This change in his opinions and objects of interest brought him now into more intimate relations with a set of whom he had, as yet, seen little. For want of a better name, we may call them "the party of progress." At their parties, instead of practical jokes, and boisterous mirth, and talk of boats, and bats, and guns, and horses, the highest and deepest questions of morals, and politics, and metaphysics, were discussed, and discussed with a. freshness and enthusiasm which is apt to wear off when doing has to take the place of talking, but has a strange charm of its own while it lasts, and is looked back to with loving regret by those for whom it is no longer a possibility.

With this set Tom soon fraternized, and drank in many new ideas, and took to himself also many new crotchets besides those with which he was already weighted. Almost all his new acquaintances were Liberal in politics, but a few only were ready to go all lengths with him. They were all Union men, and Tom, of course, followed the fashion, and soon propounded theories in that institution which gained him the name of Chartist Brown.

There was a strong mixture of self-conceit in it all. He had a kind of idea that he had discovered something which it was creditable to have discovered, and that it was a very fine thing to have all these feelings for, and sympathies with, "the masses", and to believe in democracy, and "glorious humanity," and "a good time coming," and I know not what other big matters. And, although it startled and pained him at first to hear himself called ugly names, which he had hated and despised from his youth up, and to know that many of his old acquaintances looked upon him, not simply as a madman, but as a madman with snobbish proclivities; yet, when the first plunge was over, there was a good deal on the other hand which tickled his vanity, and was far from being unpleasant.

To do him justice, however, the disagreeables were such that, had there not been some genuine belief at the bottom, he would certainly have been headed back very speedily into the fold of political and social orthodoxy. As it was, amidst the cloud of sophisms, and platitudes, and big, one-sided ideas half-mastered, which filled his thoughts and overflowed in his talk, there was growing in him, and taking firmer hold on him daily, a true and broad sympathy for men as men, and especially for poor men as poor men, and a righteous and burning hatred against all laws, customs, or notions, which, according to his light, either were or seemed to be setting aside, or putting anything else in the place of, or above, the man. It was with him the natural outgrowth of the child's and boy's training (though his father would have been much astonished to be told so), and the instincts of those early days were now getting rapidly set into habits and faiths, and becoming a part of himself.

In this stage of his life, as in so many former ones, Tom got great help from his intercourse with Hardy, now the rising tutor of the college. Hardy was travelling much the same road himself as our hero, but was somewhat further on, and had come into it from a different country, and though quite other obstacles. Their early lives had been very different; and, both by nature and from long and severe self-restraint and discipline, Hardy was much the less impetuous and demonstrative of the two. He did not rush out, therefore (as Tom was too much inclined to do), the moment he had seized hold of the end of a new idea which he felt to be good for him and what he wanted, and brandish it in the face of all comers, and think himself a traitor to the truth if he wasn't trying to make everybody he met with eat it. Hardy, on the contrary, would test his new idea, and turn it over, and prove it as far as he could, and try to get hold of the whole of it, and ruthlessly strip off any tinsel or rose-pink sentiment with which it might happen to be mixed up.

Often and often did Tom suffer under this severe method, and rebel against it, and accuse his friend, both to his face and in his own secret thoughts, of coldness, and want of faith, and all manner of other sins of omission and commission. In the end, however, he generally came round, with more or less of rebellion, according to the severity of the treatment, and acknowledge that, when Hardy brought him down from riding the high horse, it was not without good reason, and that the dust in which he was rolled was always most wholesome dust.

For instance, there was no phrase more frequently in the mouths of the party of progress than "the good cause." It was a fine big-sounding phrase, which could be used with great effect in perorations of speeches at the Union, and was sufficiently indefinite to be easily defended from ordinary attacks, while it saved him who used it the trouble of ascertaining accurately for himself, or settling for his hearers, what it really did mean. But, however satisfactory it might be before promiscuous audiences, and so long as vehement assertion or declaration was all that was required to uphold it, this same "good cause" was liable to come to much grief when it had to get itself defined. Hardy was particularly given to persecution on this subject, when he could get Tom, and, perhaps, one or two others, in a quiet room by themselves. While professing the utmost sympathy for "the good cause," and a hope as strong as theirs that all its enemies might find themselves suspended to lamp-posts as soon as possible, he would pursue it into corners from which escape was most difficult, asking it and its supporters what it exactly was, and driving them from one cloud-land to another, and from "the good cause" to the "people's cause," the "cause of labor," and other like troublesome definitions, until the great idea seemed to have no shape or existence any longer even in their own brains.

But Hardy's persecution, provoking as it was for the time, never went to the undermining of any real conviction in the minds of his juniors, or the shaking of anything which did not need shaking, but only helped them to clear their ideas and brains as to what they were talking and thinking about, and gave them glimpses-soon clouded over again, but most useful, nevertheless-of the truth; that there were a good many knotty questions to be solved before a man could be quite sure that he had found out the way to set the world thoroughly to rights, and heal all the ills that flesh is heir to.

Hardy treated another of his friend's most favorite notions even with less respect than this one of "the good cause." Democracy, that "universal democracy," which their favourite author had recently declared to be "an inevitable fact of the days in which we live", was, perhaps, on the whole, the pet idea of the small section of liberal young Oxford, with whom Tom was now hand and glove. They lost no opportunity of worshipping it, and doing battle for it; and, indeed, most of them did very truly believe that that state of the world which this universal democracy was to bring about, and which was coming no man could say how soon, was to be in fact that age of peace and good-will which men had dreamt of in all times, when the lion should lie down with the kid, and nation should not vex nation any more.

After hearing something to this effect from Tom on several occasions, Hardy cunningly lured him to his rooms on the pretence of talking over the prospects of the boat club, and then, having seated him by the fire, which he himself proceeded to assault gently with the poker, propounded suddenly to him the question,

"Brown, I should like to know what you mean by 'democracy'?"

Tom at once saw the trap into which he had fallen, and made several efforts to break away, but unsuccessfully; and, being seated to a cup of tea, and allowed to smoke, was then and there grievously oppressed, and mangled, and sat upon, by his oldest and best friend. He took his ground carefully, and propounded only what he felt sure that Hardy himself would at once accept-what no man of any worth could possibly take exception to. "He meant much more," he said, "than this; but for the present purpose it would be enough for him to say that, whatever else it might mean, democracy in his mouth always meant that every man should have a share in the government of his country."

Hardy, seeming to acquiesce, and making a sudden change in the subject of their talk, decoyed his innocent guest away from the thought of democracy for a few minutes, by holding up to him the flag of hero-worship, in which worship Tom was, of course, a sedulous believer. Then, having involved him in most difficult country, his persecutor opened fire upon him from masked batteries of the most deadly kind, the guns being all from the armory of his own prophets.

"You long for the rule of the ablest man, everywhere, at all times? To find your ablest man, and then give him power, and obey him-that you hold to be about the highest act of wisdom which a nation can be capable of?"

"Yes; and you know you believe that to, Hardy, just as firmly as

I do."

"I hope so. But then, how about our universal democracy, and every man having a share in the government of his country?"

Tom felt that his flank was turned; in fact, the contrast of his two beliefs had never struck him vividly before, and he was consequently much confused. But Hardy went on tapping a big coal gently with the poker, and gave him time to recover himself and collect his thoughts.

"I don't mean, of course, that every man is to have an actual share in the government," he said at last.

"But every man is somehow to have a share; and, if not an actual one, I can't see what the proposition comes to."

"I call it having a share in the government when a man has share in saying who shall govern him."

"Well, you'll own that's a very different thing. But let's see; will that find our wisest governor for us-letting all the most foolish men in the nation have a say as to who he is to be?"

"Come now, Hardy, I've heard you say that you are for manhood suffrage."

"That's another question; you let in another idea there. At present we are considering whether the vox populi is the best test for finding your best man. I'm afraid all history is against you."

"That's a good joke. Now, there I defy you, Hardy."

"Begin at the beginning, then, and let us see."

"I suppose you'll say, then, that the Egyptian and Babylonian empires were better than the little Jewish republic."

"Republic! well, let that pass. But I never heard that the Jews elected Moses, or any of the judges."

"Well, never mind the Jews; they're an exceptional case; you can't argue from them."

"I don't admit that. I believe just the contrary. But go on."

"Well, then, what do you say to the glorious Greek republics, with Athens at the head of them?"

"I say that no nation ever treated their best men so badly. I see I must put on a lecture in Aristophanes for your special benefit. Vain, irritable, shallow, suspicious old Demus, with his two oboli in his cheek, and doubting only between Cleon and the sausage-seller, which he shall choose for his wisest man-not to govern, but to serve his whims and caprices. You must call another witness, I think."

"But that's a caricature."

"Take the picture, then, out of Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, how you will-you won't mend the matter much. You shouldn't go so fast, Brown; you won't mind my saying so, I know. You don't get clear in your own mind before you pitch into everyone who comes across you, and so do your own side (which I admit is mostly the right one) more harm than good."

Tom couldn't stand being put down so summarily, and fought over the ground from one country to another, from Rome to the United States, with all the arguments he could muster, but with little success. That unfortunate first admission of his, he felt it throughout, like a millstone round his neck, and could not help admitting to himself, when he left, that there was a good deal in Hardy's concluding remark,-"You'll find it rather a tough business to get your 'universal democracy' and 'government by the wisest' to pull together in one coach."

Notwithstanding all such occasional reverses and cold baths, however, Tom went on strengthening himself in his new opinions, and maintaining them with all the zeal of a convert. The shelves of his bookcase, and the walls of his room, soon began to show signs of the change which was taking place in his ways of looking at men and things. Hitherto a framed engraving of George III had hung over his mantle-piece; but early in this, his third year, the frame had disappeared for a few days, and when it reappeared, the solemn face of John Milton looked out from it, while the honest monarch had retired into a portfolio. A facsimile of Magna Charta soon displaced a large colored print of "A Day With the Pycheley", and soon afterwards the death warrant of Charles I. with its grim and resolute rows of signatures and seals, appeared on the wall in a place of honour, in the neighbourhood of Milton.

Squire Brown was passing through Oxford, and paid his son a visit soon after this last arrangement had been completed. He dined in hall, at the high table, being still a member of the college, and afterwards came with Hardy to Tom's rooms to have a quiet glass of wine, and spend the evening with his son and a few of his friends, who had been asked to meet "the governor."

Tom had a struggle with himself whether he should not remove the death-warrant into his bedroom for the evening, and had actually taken if down with this view; but in the end he could not stomach such a backsliding, and so restored it to its place. "I have never concealed my opinions from my father," he thought, "though I don't think he quite knows what they are. But if he doesn't, he ought, and the sooner the better. I should be a sneak to try to hide them. I know he won't like it, but he is always just and fair, and will make allowances. At any rate, up it goes again."

And so he re-hung the death-warrant, but with the devout secret hope that his father might not see it.

The wine-party went off admirably. The men were nice, gentlemanly, intelligent fellows; and the Squire, who had been carefully planted by Tom with his back to the death-warrant, enjoyed himself very much. At last they all went, except Hardy; and

now the nervous time approached. For a short time longer the three sat at the wine-table while the squire enlarged upon the great improvement in young men, and the habits of the University, especially in the matter of drinking. Tom had only opened three bottles of port. In his time the men would have drunk certainly not less than a bottle a man; and other like remarks he made, as he sipped his coffee, and then, pushing back his chair, said, "Well, Tom, hadn't your servant better clear away, and then we can draw round the fire, and have a talk."

"Wouldn't you like to take a turn while he is clearing? There's the Martyr's Memorial you haven't seen."

"No, thank you. I know the place well enough. I don't come to walk about in the dark. We sha'n't be in your man's way."

And so Tom's scout came in to clear away, took out the extra leaves of the table, put on the cloth, and laid tea. During these operations Mr. Brown was standing with his back to the fire, looking about him as he talked. When there was more space to move in, he began to walk up and down, and very soon took to remarking the furniture and arrangements of the room. One after the other the pictures came under his notice. Most of them escaped without comment, the Squire simply pausing a moment, and then taking up his walk again. Magna Charta drew forth his hearty approval. It was a capital notion to hang such things on his walls, instead of bad prints of steeple-chases, or trash of that sort. "Ah, here's something else of the same kind. Why, Tom, what's this?" said the squire, as he paused before the death-warrant. There was a moment or two of dead silence, while the Squire's eyes ran down the names, from Jo. Bradshaw to Miles Corbet; and then he turned, and came and sat down opposite to his son. Tom expected his father to be vexed, but was not the least prepared for the tone of pain, and sorrow, and anger, in which he first inquired, and then remonstrated.

For some time past the Squire and his son had not felt so comfortable together as of old. Mr. Brown had been annoyed by much that Tom had done in the case of Harry Winburn, though he did not know all. There had sprung up a barrier somehow or other between them, neither of them knew how. They had often felt embarrassed at being left alone together during the past year, and found that there were certain topics which they could not talk upon, which they avoided by mutual consent. Every now and then the constraint and embarrassment fell off for a short time, for at bottom they loved and appreciated one another heartily; but the divergences in their thoughts and habits had become very serious, and seemed likely to increase rather than not. They felt keenly the chasm between the two generations. As they looked at one another from opposite banks, each in his secret heart blamed the other in great measure for that which was the fault of neither. Mixed with the longings which each felt for a better understanding was enough of reserve and indignation to prevent them from coming to it. The discovery of their differences was too recent, and they were too much alike in character and temper, for either to make large enough allowance for, or to be really tolerant of, the other.

This was the first occasion on which they had come to outspoken and serious difference; and though the collision had been exceedingly painful to both, yet when they parted for the night, it was with a feeling of relief that the ice had been thoroughly broken. Before his father left the room, Tom had torn the facsimile of the death-warrant out of its frame, and put it in the fire, protesting, however, at the same time, that, though "he did thist out of deference to his father, and was deeply grieved at having given him pain, he could not and would not give up his convictions, or pretend that they were changed, or even shaken."

The Squire walked back to his hotel deeply moved. Who can wonder? He was a man full of living and vehement convictions. One of his early recollections had been the arrival in England of the news of the beheading of Louis XVI, and the doings of the Reign of Terror. He had been bred in the times when it was held impossible for a gentleman or a Christian to hold such views as his son had been maintaining, and, like many of the noblest Englishmen of his time, had gone with and accepted the creed of the day.

Tom remained behind, dejected and melancholy; now accusing his father of injustice and bigotry, now longing to go after him, and give up everything. What were all his opinions and convictions compared with his father's confidence and love? At breakfast the next morning, however, after each of them had had time for thinking over what had passed, they met with a cordiality which was as pleasant to each as it was unlooked for; and from this visit of his father to him at Oxford, Tom dated a new and more satisfactory epoch in their intercourse.

The fact had begun to dawn on the Squire that the world had changed a good deal since his time. He saw that young men were much improved in some ways, and acknowledged the fact heartily; on the other hand, they had taken up with a lot of new notions which he could not understand, and thought mischievous and bad. Perhaps Tom might get over them as he got to be older and wiser, and in the meantime he must take the evil with the good. At any rate he was too fair a man to try to dragoon his son out of anything which he really believed. Tom on his part gratefully accepted the change in his father's manner, and took all means of showing his gratitude by consulting and talking freely to him on such subjects as they could agree upon, which were numerous, keeping in the back-ground the questions which had provoked painful discussions between them. By degrees these even could be tenderly approached; and, now that they were approached in a different spirit, the honest beliefs of the father and son no longer looked so monstrous to one another, the hard and sharp outlines began to wear off, and the views of each of them to be modified. Thus, bit by bit, by a slow but sure process, a better understanding than ever was re-established between them.

This beginning of a better state of things in his relations with his father consoled Tom for many other matters that seemed to go wrong with him, and was a constant bit of bright sky to turn to when the rest of his horizon looked dark and dreary, as it did often enough.

For it proved a very trying year to him, this his third and last year at the University; a year full of large dreams and small performances, of unfulfilled hopes and struggles to set himself right, ending ever more surely in failure and disappointment. The common pursuits of the place had lost their freshness, and with it much of their charm. He was beginning to feel himself in a cage, and to beat against the bars of it.

Often, in spite of all his natural hopefulness, his heart seemed to sicken and turn cold, without any apparent reason; his old pursuits palled on him, and he scarcely cared to turn to new ones. What was it that made life so blank to him at these times? How was it that he could not keep the spirit within him alive and warm?

It was easier to ask such questions than to get an answer. Was it not this place he was living in and the ways of it? No, for the place and its ways were the same as ever, and his own way of life in it better than ever before. Was it the want of sight or tidings of Mary? Sometimes he thought so, and then cast the thought away as treason. His love for her was ever sinking deeper into him, and raising and purifying him. Light and strength and life came from that source; craven weariness and coldness of heart, come from whence they might, were not from that quarter. But precious as his love was to him, and deeply as it affected his whole life, he felt that there must be something beyond it-that its full satisfaction would not be enough for him. The bed was too narrow for a man to stretch himself on. What he was in search of must underlie and embrace his human love, and support it. Beyond and above all private and personal desires and hopes and longings, he was conscious of a restless craving and feeling about after something, which he could not grasp, and yet which was not avoiding him, which seemed to be mysteriously laying hold of him and surrounding him.

The routine of chapels, and lectures, and reading for degree, boating, cricketing, Union-debating,-all well enough in their way-left this vacuum unfilled. There was a great outer visible world, the problems and puzzles of which were rising before him and haunting him more and more; and a great inner and invisible world opening round him in awful depth. He seemed to be standing on the brink of each-now shivering and helpless, feeling like an atom about to be whirled into the great flood and carried he knew not where-now ready to plunge in and take his part, full of hope and belief that he was meant to buffet in the strength of a man with the seen and the unseen, and to be subdued by neither.

In such a year as this, a bit of steady, bright blue sky was a boon beyond all price, and so he felt it to be. And it was not only with his father that Tom regained lost ground in this year. He was in a state of mind in which he could not bear to neglect or lose any particle of human sympathy, and so he turned to old friendships, and revived the correspondence with several of his old school-fellows, and particularly with Arthur, to the great delight of the latter, who had mourned bitterly over the few half-yearly lines, all he had got from Tom of late, in answer to his own letters, which had themselves, under the weight of neglect, gradually dwindled down to mere formal matters. A specimen of the later correspondence may fitly close the chapter:-


"Dear Geordie-I can hardly pardon you for having gone to Cambridge, though you have got a Trinity scholarship-which I suppose is, on the whole, quite as good a thing as anything of the sort you could have got up here. I had so looked forward to having you here though, and now I feel that we shall probably scarcely ever meet. You will go your way and I mine; and one alters so quickly, and gets into such strange new grooves, that unless one sees a man about once a week at least, you may be just like strangers when you are thrown together again. If you had come up here it would have been all right, and we should have gone all through life as we were when I left school, and as I know we should be again in no time if you had come here. But now, who can tell?

"What makes me think so much of this is a visit of a few days that East paid me just before his regiment went to India. I feel that if he hadn't done it, and we had not met till he came back-years hence perhaps-we should never have been to one another what we shall be now. The break would have been too great. Now it's all right. You would have liked to see the old fellow grown into a man, but not a bit altered-just the quiet, old way, pooh-poohing you, and pretending to care for nothing, but ready to cut the nose off his face, or go through fire and water for you at a pinch, if you'll only let him go his own way about it, and have his grumble, and say that he does it all from the worst possible motives.

"But we must try not to lose hold of one another, Geordie. It would be a bitter day to me if I thought anything of the kind could ever happen again. We must write more to one another. I've been awfully lazy, I know, about it for this last year and more; but then I always thought you would be coming up here, and so that it didn't matter much. But now I will turn over a new leaf, and write to you about my secret thoughts, my works and ways; and you must do it too. If we can only tide over the next year or two we shall get into plain sailing, and I suppose it will all right then. At least, I can't believe that one is likely to have many such up-and-down years in one's life as the last two. If one is, goodness knows where I shall end. You know the outline of what has happened to me from my letters, and the talks we have had in my flying visits to the old school, but you haven't a notion of the troubles of mind I've been in, and the changes I've gone through. I can hardly believe it myself when I look back. However I'm quite sure I have got on; that's my great comfort. It is a strange blind sort of world, that's a fact, with lots of blind alleys, down which you go blundering in the fog after some seedy gaslight, which you take for the sun till you run against the wall at the end, and find out that the light is a gaslight, and that there's no thoroughfare. But for all that one does get on. You get to know the sun's light better and better, and to keep out of the blind alleys; and I am surer and surer every day, that there's always sunlight enough for every honest fellow-though I didn't think so a few months back-and a good sound road under his feet, if he will only step out on it.

"Talking of blind alleys puts me in mind of your last. Aren't you going down a blind alley, or something worse? There's no wall to bring you up, that I can see down the turn you've taken; and then, what's the practical use of it all? What good would you do to yourself, or anyone else, if you could get to the end of it? I can't for the life of me fancy, I confess, what you think will come of speculating about necessity and free will. I only know that I can hold out my hand before me, and can move it to the right or left, despite of all the powers in heaven or earth. As I sit here writing to you, I can let into my heart, and give the reins to, all sorts of devil's passions, or to the Spirit of God. Well, that's enough for me. I know it of myself, and I believe you know it of yourself, and everybody knows it of themselves or himself; and why you can't be satisfied with that, passes my comprehension. As if one hasn't got puzzles enough, and bothers enough, under one's nose, without going a-field after a lot of metaphysical quibbles. No, I'm wrong,-not going a-field,-anything one has to go a-field for is all right. What a fellow meets outside himself he isn't responsible for, and must do the best he can with. But to go on for ever looking inside of one's self, and groping about amongst one's own sensations, and ideas, and whimsies of one kind and another, I can't conceive a poorer line of business than that. Don't you get into it now, that's a dear boy.

"Very likely you'll tell me you can't help it; that every one has his own difficulties, and must fight them out, and that mine are one sort, and yours another. Well, perhaps you may be right. I hope I'm getting to know that my plummet isn't to measure all the world. But it does seem a pity that men shouldn't be thinking about how to cure some of the wrongs which poor dear old England is pretty near dying of, instead of taking the edge off their brains, and spending all their steam in speculating about all kinds of things, which wouldn't make any poor man in the world-or rich one either, for that matter-a bit better off, if they were all found out, and settled to-morrow. But here I am at the end of my paper. Don't be angry at my jobation; but write me a long answer of your own free will, and believe me ever affectionately yours,

"T. B."

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top