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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 19732

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

If a knowledge of contemporary history must be reckoned as an important element in the civilization of any people, then I am afraid that the good folk of Englebourn must have been content, in the days of our story, with a very low place on the ladder. How, indeed, was knowledge to percolate, so as to reach down to the foundations of Englebournian society-the stratum on which all others rest-the common agricultural labourer, producer of corn and other grain, the careful and stolid nurse and guardian of youthful oxen, sheep and pigs, many of them far better fed and housed than his own children? All-penetrating as she is, one cannot help wondering that she did not give up Englebourn altogether as a hopeless job.

So far as written periodical instruction is concerned (with the exception of the Quarterly, which Dr. Winter had taken in from its commencement, but rarely opened), the supply was limited to at most half a dozen weekly papers. A London journal, sound in Church and State principles, most respectable but not otherwise than heavy, came every Saturday to the rectory. The Conservative county paper was taken in at the Red Lion; and David the constable, and the blacksmith, clubbed together to purchase the Liberal paper, by help of which they managed to wage unequal war with the knot of village quidnuncs, who assembled almost nightly at the bar of the Tory beast above referred to-that king of beasts, red indeed in colour but of the truest blue in political principle. Besides these, perhaps three or four more papers were taken by the farmers. But, scanty as the food was, it was quite enough for the mouths; indeed, when the papers once passed out of the parlours, they had for the most part performed their mission. Few of the farm-servants, male or female, had curiosity or scholarship enough to spell through the dreary columns.

And oral teaching was not much more plentiful, as how was it likely to be? Englebourn was situated on no trunk road, and the amount of intercourse between it and the rest of the world was of the most limited kind. The rector never left home; the curate at rare intervals. Most of the farmers went to market once a week and dined at their ordinary, discussing county politics according to their manner, but bringing home little, except as much food and drink as they could cleverly carry. The carrier went to and from Newbury once a week; but he was a silent man, chiefly bent on collecting and selling butter. The postman, who was deaf, only went as far as the next village. The waggoners drove their masters' produce to market from time to time, and boozed away an hour or two in the kitchen, or tap, or skittle-alley, of some small public-house in the nearest town, while their horses rested. With the above exceptions, probably not one of the villagers strayed ten miles from home, from year's end to year's end. As to visitors, an occasional peddler or small commercial traveller turned up about once a quarter. A few boys and girls, more enterprising than their fellows, went out altogether into the world, of their own accord, in the course of the year; and an occasional burly ploughboy, or carter's boy, was entrapped into taking the Queen's shilling by some subtle recruiting sergeant. But few of these were seen again, except at long intervals. The yearly village feasts, harvest homes, or a meet of the hounds on Englebourn Common, were the most exciting events which in an ordinary way stirred the surface of Englebourn life; only faintest and most distant murmurs of the din and strife of the great outer world, of wars, and rumors of wars, the fall of governments, and the throes of nations, reached that primitive, out-of-the-way little village.

A change was already showing itself since Miss Winter had been old enough to look after the schools. The waters were beginning to stir; and by this time, no doubt, the parish boasts a regular book-hawker and reading-room; but at that day Englebourn was like one of those small ponds you may find in some nook of a hill-side, the banks grown over with underwood, to which neither man nor beast, scarcely the winds of heaven, have any access. When you have found such a pond, you may create a great excitement amongst the easy-going newts and frogs who inhabit it, by throwing in a pebble. The splash in itself is a small splash enough, and the waves which circle away from it are very tiny waves, but they move over the whole face of the pond, and are of more interest to the frogs than a nor'-wester in the Atlantic.

So the approaching return of Harry Winburn, and the story of his doings at the wars, and of the wonderful things he had sent home, stirred Englebourn to its depth. In that small corner of the earth, the sergeant was of far more importance than governor-general and commander-in-chief. In fact, it was probably the common belief that he was somehow the head of the whole business; and India, the war, and all that hung thereon, were looked at and cared for only as they had served to bring him out. So careless were the good folk about everything in the matter except their own hero, and so wonderful were the romances which soon got abroad about him, that Miss Winter, tired of explaining again and again to the old women without the slightest effect on the parochial faith, bethought her of having a lecture on the subject of India and the war in the parish schoolroom.

Full of this idea, she wrote off to Tom, who was the medium of communication on Indian matters, and propounded it to him. The difficulty was, that Mr. Walker, the curate, the only person competent to give it, was going away directly for a three weeks' holiday, having arranged with two neighbouring curates to take his Sunday duty for him. What was to be done? Harry might be back any day, it seemed; so there was no time to be lost. Could Tom come himself, and help her?

Tom could not, but he wrote back to say that his friend Hardy was just getting away from Oxford for the long vacation, and would gladly take Mr. Walker's duty for the three weeks, if Dr. Winter approved, on his way home; by which Englebourn would not be without an efficient parson on week-days, and she would have the man of all others to help her in utilizing the sergeant's history for the instruction of the bucolic mind. The arrangement, moreover, would be particularly happy, because Hardy had already promised to perform the marriage ceremony, which Tom and she had settled would take place at the earliest possible moment after the return of the Indian heroes.

Dr. Winter was very glad to accept the offer; and so, when they parted at Oxford, Hardy went to Englebourn, where we must leave him for the present. Tom went home-whence, in a few days, he had to hurry down to Southampton to meet the two Harrys. He was much shocked at first to see the state of his old school-fellow. East looked haggard and pale in the face, notwithstanding the sea voyage. His clothes hung on him as if they had been made for a man of twice his size, and he walked with difficulty by the help of a large stick. But he had lost none of his indomitableness, laughed at Tom's long face, and declared that he felt himself getting better and stronger every day.

"If you had only seen me at Calcutta," he said, "you would sing a different song. Eh, Winburn?"

Harry Winburn was much changed, and had acquired all the composed and self-reliant look which is so remarkable in a good non-commissioned officer. Readiness to obey and command was stamped on every line of his face; but it required all his powers of self-restraint to keep within bounds his delight at getting home again. His wound was quite healed, and his health re-established by the voyage; and, when Tom saw how wonderfully his manners and carriage were improved, and how easily his uniform sat on him, he felt quite sure that all would soon be right at Englebourn, and that Katie and he would be justified in their prophecies and preparations. The invalids had to report themselves in London, and thither the three proceeded together. When this was done, Harry Winburn was sent off at once. He resisted at first, and begged to be allowed to stay with his captain until the captain could go to Berkshire himself. But he was by this time too much accustomed to discipline not to obey a positive order, and was comforted by Tom's assurance that he would not leave East, and would do everything for him which the sergeant had been accustomed to do.

Three days later, as East and Tom were sitting at breakfast, a short note came from Miss Winter, telling of Harry's arrival-how the bells were set ringing to welcome him; how Mr. Hardy had preached the most wonderful sermon on his story the next day; above all, how Patty had surrendered at discretion, and the banns had been called for the first time. So the sooner they would come down the better-as it was very important that no time should be lost, lest some of the old jealousies and quarrels should break out again. Upon reading and considering which letter, East resolved to start for Englebourn at once, and Tom to accompany him.

There was one person to whom Harry's return and approaching wedding was a subject of unmixed joy and triumph, and that was David the constable. He had always been a sincere friend to Harry, and had stood up for him when all the parish respectabilities had turned against him, and had prophesied that he would live to be a credit to the place. So now David felt himself an inch higher as he saw Harry walking about in his uniform with his sweetheart, the admiration of all Englebourn. But, besides all the unselfish pleasure which David enjoyed on his young friend's account, a little piece of private and personal gratification came to him on his own. Ever since Harry's courtship had begun, David had felt himself in a false po

sition towards, and had suffered under, old Simon, the rector's gardener. The necessity for keeping the old man in good humor for Harry's sake had always been present to the constable's mind; and for the privilege of putting in a good word for his favorite now and then, he had allowed old Simon to assume an air of superiority over him, and to trample upon him and dogmatize to him, even in the matters of flowers and bees. This had been the more galling to David on account of old Simon's intolerant Toryism, which the constable's soul rebelled against, except in the matter of Church music. On this point they agreed, but even here Simon managed to be unpleasant. He would lay the whole blame of the changes which had been effected upon David, accusing him of having given in where there was no need. As there was nothing but a wall between the Rectory garden and David's little strip of ground, in which he spent all his leisure time until the shades of evening summoned him to the bar of the Red Lion for his daily pint and pipe, the two were constantly within hearing of one another, and Simon, in times past, had seldom neglected an opportunity of making himself disagreeable to his long-suffering neighbour.

But now David was a free man again; and he took the earliest occasion of making the change in his manner apparent to Simon, and of getting, as he called it, "upsides" with him. One would have thought, to look at him, that the old gardener was as pachydermatous as a rhinoceros; but somehow he seemed to feel that things had changed between them, and did not appreciate an interview with David now nearly so much as of old. So he found very little to do in that part of the garden which abutted on the constable's premises. When he could not help working there, he chose the times at which David was most likely to be engaged, or even took the trouble to ascertain that he was not at home.

Early on Midsummer day, old Simon reared his ladder against the boundary wall, with a view of "doctorin'" some of the fruit trees, relying on a parish meeting, at which the constable's presence was required. But he had not more than half finished his operations before David had returned from vestry, and, catching sight of the top of the ladder and Simon's head above the wall, laid aside all other business, and descended into the garden.

Simon kept on at his work, only replying by a jerk of the head and one of his grunts to his neighbour's salutation.

David took his coat off, and his pruning knife out, and, establishing himself within easy shot of his old oppressor, opened fire at once-

"Thou'st gi'en thy consent, then?"

"'Tis no odds, consent or none-her's old enough to hev her own waay."

"But thou'st gi'en thy consent?"

"Ees, then, if thou wilt hev't," said Simon, somewhat surlily; "wut then?"

"So I heerd," said David, indulging in an audible chuckle.

"What bist a laughin' at?"

"I be laughin' to think how folks changes. Do'st mind the hard things as thou hast judged and said o' Harry? Not as ever I known thy judgment to be o' much account, 'cept about roots. But thou saidst, times and times, as a would come to the gallows."

"So a med yet-so a med yet," answered Simon. "Not but wut I wishes well to un, and bears no grudges; but others as hev got the law ov un medn't."

"'Tis he as hev got grudges to bear. He don't need none o' thy forgiveness."

"Pr'aps a medn't. But hev 'em got the law ov un, or hevn't em?"

"Wut do'st mean-got the law ov un?"

"Thaay warrants as wur out agen un, along wi' the rest as was transpworted auver Farmer Tester's job."

"Oh, he've got no call to be afeard o' thaay now. Thou know'st I hears how 'tis laid down in Sessions and 'Sizes, wher' I've a been this twenty year."

"Like enuff. Only, wut's to hinder thaay tryin' ov un, if thaay be a minded to 't? That's what I wants to know."

"'Tis wut the counsellors calls the Statut o' Lamentations," said the constable, proudly.

"Wutever's Lamentations got to do wi't?"

"A gurt deal, I tell 'ee. What do'st thou know o' Lamentations?"

"Lamentations cums afore Ezekiel in the Bible."

"That ain't no kin to the Statut o' Lamentations. But ther's summut like to't in the Bible," said the constable, stopping his work to consider a moment. "Do'st mind the year when the land wur all to be guv back to thaay as owned it fust, and debts wur to be wiped out?"

"Ees, I minds summut o' that."

"Well, this here statut says, if so be as a man hev bin to the wars, and sarved his country like; as nothin' shan't be reckoned agen he, let alone murder. Nothin' can't do away wi' murder."

"No, nor oughtn't. Hows'mdever, you seems clear about the law on't. There's Miss a callin'."

And old Simon's head disappeared as he descended the ladder to answer the summons of his young mistress, not displeased at having his fears as to the safety of his future son-in-law set at rest by so eminent a legal authority as the constable. Fortunately for Harry, the constable's law was not destined to be tried. Young Wurley was away in London. Old Tester was bedridden with an accumulation of diseases brought on by his bad life. His illness made him more violent and tyrannical than ever; but he could do little harm out of his own room, for no one ever went to see him, and the wretched farm-servant who attended him was much too frightened to tell him anything of what was going on in the parish. There was no one else to revive proceedings against Harry.

David pottered on at his bees and his flowers till old Simon returned, and ascended his ladder again.

"You be ther' still, be 'ee?" he said, as soon as he saw David.

"Ees. Any news?"

"Ah, news enuff. He as wur Harry's captain and young Mr. Brown be comin' down to-morrow, and hev tuk all the Red Lion to theirselves. And thaay beant content to wait for banns-not thaay-and so ther's to be a license got for Saturday. 'Taint scarce decent, that 'taint."

"'Tis best to get drough wi't," said the constable.

"Then nothin'll sarve 'em but the church must be hung wi' flowers, and wher' be thaay to cum from without strippin' and starvin' ov my beds? 'Tis shameful to see how folks acts wi' flowers now-a-days, a cuttin' on 'em and puttin' on 'em about, as prodigal at though thaay growed o' theirselves."

"So 'tis shameful," said David, whose sympathies for flowers were all with Simon. "I heers tell as young Squire Wurley hevs 'em on table at dinner-time instead o' the wittels."

"Do'ee though! I calls it reg'lar Papistry, and so I tells Miss; but her only laughs."

The constable shook his head solemnly as he replied "Her've been led away wi' such doin's ever sence Mr. Walker cum, and took to organ-playin' and chantin'."

"And he ain't no such gurt things in the pulpit, neether, ain't Mr. Walker," chimed in Simon, (the two had not been so in harmony for years). "I reckon as he ain't nothin' to speak ov alongside o' this here new un as hev tuk his place. He've a got a good deal o' move in un' he hev."

"Ah, so a hev. A wunnerful sight o' things a telled us t'other night, about the Indians and the wars."

"Ah! talking cums as nat'ral to he as buttermilk to a litterin' sow."

"Thou should'st a heerd un, though, about the battles. I can't mind the neames on 'em-let me see-"

"I dwun't valley the neames," interrupted Simon. "Thaay makes a deal o' fuss auvert 'taal, but I dwun't tek no account on't. Tain't like the owld wars and fightin' o' the French, this here fightin' wi' blackamoors, let 'em talk as thaay wool."

"No more 'tain't. But 'twur a 'mazin' fine talk as he gi'n us.

Hev 'ee seed ought 'twixt he and young missus?"

"Nothin' out o' th' common. I got plenty to do without lookin' arter the women, and 'tain't no bisness o' mine, nor o' thine neether."

David was preparing a stout rejoinder to this rebuke of the old retainer of the Winter family on his curiosity, but was summoned by his wife to the house to attend a customer; and by the time he could get out again, Simon had disappeared.

The next day East and Tom arrived, and took possession of the Red Lion; and Englebourn was soon in a ferment of preparation for the wedding. East was not the man to do things by halves; and, seconded as he was by Miss Winter, and Hardy, and Tom, had soon made arrangements for all sorts of merrymaking. The school-children were to have a whole holiday, and, after scattering flowers at church and marching in the bridal procession, were to be entertained in a tent pitched in the home paddock of the Rectory, and to have an afternoon of games and prizes, and cake and tea. The bell-ringers, Harry's old comrades, were to have five shillings apiece, and a cricket match, and a dinner afterwards at the second public house, to which any other of his old friends whom Harry chose to ask, were to be also invited. The old men and women were to be fed in the village school-room; and East and Tom were to entertain a select party of the farmers and tradesmen, at the Red Lion; the tap of which hostelry was to be thrown open to all comers at the Captain's expense. It was not without considerable demur on the part of Miss Winter, that some of these indiscriminate festivities were allowed to pass. But after consulting with Hardy, she relented, on condition that the issue of beer at the two public-houses should be put under the control of David, the constable, who, on his part, promised that law and order should be well represented and maintained on the occasion. "Arter all, Miss, you sees, 'tis only for once in a waay," he said; "and 'twill make 'em remember aal as hev bin said to 'em about the Indians, and the rest on't." So the Captain and his abettors, having gained the constable as an ally, prevailed; and Englebourn, much wondering at itself, made ready for a general holiday.

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