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   Chapter 48 THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 23089

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


From the Englebourn festivities, Tom and East returned to London. The Captain was bent on starting for his possessions in the South Pacific; and, as he regained strength, energized over all his preparations, and went about in cabs purchasing agricultural implements, sometimes by the light of nature, and sometimes under the guidance of Harry Winburn. He invested also in something of a library, and in large quantities of saddlery. In short, packages of all kinds began to increase and multiply upon him. Then there was the selecting of a vessel, and all the negotiations with the ship's captain as to terms, and the business of getting introduced to, and conferring with, people from the colony, or who were supposed to know something about it. Altogether, East had plenty of work on his hands; and the more he had to do, the better and more cheery he became.

Tom, on the contrary, was rather lower than usual. His half-formed hopes that some good luck was going to happen to him after Patty's marriage, were beginning to grow faint, and the contrast of his friend's definite present purpose in life, with his own uncertainty, made him more or less melancholy in spite of all his efforts. His father had offered him a tour abroad, now that he had finished with Oxford, urging that he seemed to want a change to freshen him up before buckling to a profession, and that he would never, in all likelihood, have such another chance. But he could not make up his mind to accept the offer. The attraction to London was too strong for him; and, though he saw little hope of anything happening to improve his prospects, he could not keep away from it. He spent most of his time, when not with East, in haunting the neighborhood of Mr. Porter's house in Belgravia, and the places where he was likely to catch distant glimpses of Mary, avoiding all chance of actual meeting or recognition, from which he shrank in his present frame of mind.

The nearest approach to the flame which he allowed himself was a renewal of his old friendship with Grey, who was still working on in his Westminister rookery. He had become a great favorite with Mrs. Porter, who was always trying to get him to her house to feed him properly, and was much astonished, and sometimes almost provoked, at the small success of her hospitable endeavors. Grey was so taken up with his own pursuits that it did not occur to him to be surprised that he never met Tom at the house of his relations. He was innocent of all knowledge or suspicion of the real state of things, so that Tom could talk to him with perfect freedom about his uncle's household, picking up all such scraps of information as Grey possessed without compromising himself or feeling shy.

Thus the two old schoolfellows lived on together after their return from Englebourn, in a set of chambers in the Temple, which one of Tom's college friends (who had been beguiled from the perusal of Stephen's Commentaries and aspirations after the woolsack, by the offer of a place on board a yacht and a cruise to Norway) had fortunately lent him.

We join company with our hero again on a fine July morning. Readers will begin to think that, at any rate, he is always blessed with fine weather, whatever troubles he may have to endure; but, if we are not to have fine weather in novels, when and where are we to have it? It was a fine July morning, then, and the streets were already beginning to feel sultry as he worked his way westward. Grey, who had never given up hopes of bringing Tom round to his own views, had not neglected the opportunities which this residence in town offered, and had enlisted Tom's services on more than one occasion. He had found him specially useful in instructing the big boys, whom he was trying to bring together and civilize in a "Young Men's Club," in the rudiments of cricket on Saturday evenings. But on the morning in question, an altogether different work was on hand.

A lady living some eight or nine miles to the north-west of London, who took great interest in Grey's doings, had asked him to bring the children of his night-school down to spend a day in her grounds, and this was the happy occasion. It was before the days of cheap excursions by rail, so that vans had to be found for the party; and Grey had discovered a benevolent remover of furniture in Paddington, who was ready to take them at a reasonable figure. The two vans, with awnings and curtains in the height of fashion, and horses with tasselled ear-caps, and everything handsome about them, were already drawn up in the midst of a group of excited children, and scarcely less excited mothers, when Tom arrived. Grey was arranging his forces, and labouring to reduce the Irish children, who formed almost half his ragged little flock, into something like order, before starting. By degrees this was managed, and Tom was placed in command of the rear van, while Grey reserved the leading one to himself. The children were divided and warned not to lean over the sides and fall out-a somewhat superfluous caution-as most of them, though unused to riding in any legitimate manner, were pretty well used to balancing themselves behind any vehicle which offered as much as a spike to sit on, out of sight of the driver. Then came the rush into the vans. Grey and Tom took up their places next the doors as conductors, and the procession lumbered off with great success, and much shouting from treble voices.

Tom soon found that he had plenty of work on his hands to keep the peace among his flock. The Irish element was in a state of wild effervescence, and he had to draft them down to his own end, leaving the foremost cart of the van to the soberer English children. He was much struck by the contrast of the whole set to the Englebourn school children, whom he had lately seen under somewhat similar circumstances. The difficulty with them had been to draw them out, and put anything like life into them; here, all he had to do was to suppress the superabundant life. However, the vans held on their way, and got safely into the suburbs, and so at last to an occasional hedge, and a suspicion of trees, and green fields beyond.

It became more and more difficult now to keep the boys in; and when they came to a hill, where the horses had to walk, he yielded to their entreaties, and, opening the door, let them out, insisting only that the girls should remain seated. They scattered over the sides of the roads, and up the banks; now chasing pigs and fowls up to the very doors of their owners; now gathering the commonest roadside weeds, and running up to show them to him, and ask their names, as if they were rare treasures. The ignorance of most of the children as to the commonest country matters astonished him. One small boy particularly came back time after time to ask him, with solemn face "Please, sir, is this the country?" and when at last he allowed that it was, rejoined, "Then, please, where are the nuts?"

The clothing of most of the Irish boys began to tumble to pieces in an alarming manner. Grey had insisted on their being made tidy for the occasion, but the tidiness was of a superficial kind. The hasty stitching soon began to give way, and they were rushing about with wild locks; the strips of what once might have been nether garments hanging about their legs; their feet and heads bare, the shoes which their mothers had borrowed for the state occasion having been deposited under the seat of the van. So, when the procession arrived at the trim lodge-gates of their hostess, and his charge descended and fell in on the beautifully clipped turf at the side of the drive, Tom felt some of the sensations of Falstaff when he had to lead his ragged regiment through Coventry streets.

He was soon at his ease again, and enjoyed the day thoroughly, and the drive home; but, as they drew near town again, a sense of discomfort and shyness came over him, and he wished the journey to Westminster well over, and hoped that the carman would have the sense to go through the quiet parts of the town.

He was much disconcerted consequently, when the vans came to a sudden stop opposite one of the Park entrances, in the Bayswater Road. "What in the world is Grey about?" he thought, as he saw him get out, and all the children after him. So he got out himself, and went forward to get an explanation.

"Oh I have told the man that he need not drive us round to Westminster. He is close at home here, and his horses have had a hard day; so we can just get out and walk home."

"What, across the Park?" asked Tom.

"Yes, it will amuse the children, you know."

"But they're tired," persisted Tom; "come now, it's all nonsense letting the fellow off; he's bound to take us back."

"I'm afraid I have promised him," said Grey; "besides, the children all think it a treat. Don't you all want to walk across the Park?" he went on turning to them, and a general affirmative chorus was the answer. So Tom had nothing for it but to shrug his shoulders, empty his own van, and follow into the Park with his convoy, not in the best humor with Grey for having arranged this ending to their excursion.

They might have got over a third of the distance between the Bayswater Road and the Serpentine, when he was aware of a small, thin voice addressing him.

"Oh, please won't you carry me a bit? I'm so tired," said the voice. He turned in some trepidation to look for the speaker, and found her to be a sickly, undergrown little girl of ten or thereabouts, with large, pleading, grey eyes, very shabbily dressed, and a little lame. He had remarked her several times in the course of the day, not for any beauty or grace about her, for the poor child had none, but for her transparent confidence and trustfulness. After dinner, as they had been all sitting on the grass under the shade of a great elm to hear Grey read a story, and Tom had been sitting a little apart from the rest with his back against the trunk, she had come up and sat quietly down by him, leaning on his knee. Then he had seen her go up and take the hand of the lady who had entertained them, and walk along by her, talking without the least shyness. Soon afterwards she had squeezed into the swing by the side of the beautifully-dressed little daughter of the same lady, who, after looking for a minute at her shabby little sister with large round eyes, had jumped out and run off to her mother, evidently in a state of childish bewilderment as to whether it was not wicked for a child to wear such dirty old clothes.

Tom had chuckled to himself as he saw Cinderella settling herself comfortably in the swing in the place of the ousted princess, and had taken a fancy to the child, speculating to himself as to how she could have been brought up, to be so utterly unconscious of differences of rank and dress. "She seems really to treat her fellow-creatures as if she had been studying the Sartor Resartus," he thought. "She was cut down through all clothes-philosophy without knowing it. I wonder, if she had a chance, whether she would go and sit down in the Queen's lap?"

He did not at the time anticipate that she would put his own clothes-philosophy to so severe a test before the day was over. The child had been as merry and active as any of the rest during the earlier part of the day; but now, as he looked down in answer to her reiterated plea, "Won't you carry me a bit? I'm so tired!", he saw that she could scarcely drag one foot after another.

What was to be done? He was alre

ady keenly alive to the discomfort of walking across Hyde Park in a procession of ragged children, with such a figure of fun as Grey at their head, looking, in his long, rusty, straight-cut black coat, as if he had come fresh out of Noah's ark. He didn't care about it so much while they were on the turf in the out-of-the-way parts, and would meet nobody but guards, and nurse-maids, and trades-people, and mechanics out for an evening's stroll. But the Drive and Rotten Row lay before them, and must be crossed. It was just the most crowded time of the day. He had almost made up his mind once or twice to stop Grey and the procession, and propose to sit down for half-an-hour or so and let the children play, by which time the world would be going home to dinner. But there was no play left in the children; and he had resisted the temptation, meaning, when they came to the most crowded part, to look unconscious, as if it were by chance that he had got into such company, and had in fact nothing to do with them. But now, if he listened to the child's plea, and carried her, all hope of concealment was over. If he did not, he felt that there would be no greater flunkey in the Park that evening than Thomas Brown, the enlightened radical and philosopher, amongst the young gentlemen riders in Rotten Row, or the powdered footmen lounging behind the great blaring carriages in the Drive.

So he looked down at the child once or twice in a state of puzzle. A third time she looked up with her great eyes, and said, "Oh, please carry me a bit!" and her piteous, tired face turned the scale. "If she were Lady Mary or Lady Blanche," thought he, "I should pick her up at once, and be proud of the burden. Here goes!" And he took her up in his arms, and walked on, desperate and reckless.

Notwithstanding all his philosophy, he felt his ears tingling and his face getting red, as they approached the drive. It was crowded. They were kept standing a minute or two at the crossing. He made a desperate effort to abstract himself wholly from the visible world, and retire in a state of serene contemplation. But it would not do; and he was painfully conscious of the stare of lack-lustre eyes of well dressed men leaning over the rails, and the amused look of delicate ladies, lounging in open carriages, and surveying him and Grey and their ragged rout through glasses.

At last they scrambled across, and he breathed freely for a minute, as they struggled along the comparatively quiet path leading to Albert Gate, and stopped to drink at the fountain. Then came Rotten Row, and another pause amongst the loungers, and a plunge into the Ride, where he was nearly run down by two men whom he had known at Oxford. They shouted to him to get out of the way; and he felt the hot defiant blood rushing through his veins, as he strode across without heeding. They passed on, one of them having to pull his horse out of his stride to avoid him. Did they recognize him? He felt a strange mixture of utter indifference, and longing to strangle them.

The worst was now over; besides, he was getting used to the situation, and his good sense was beginning to rally. So he marched through Albert Gate, carrying his ragged little charge, who prattled away to him without a pause, and surrounded by the rest of the children, scarcely caring who might see him.

They won safely through the omnibuses and carriages on the Kensington Road, and so into Belgravia. At last he was quite at his ease again, and began listening to what the child was saying to him, and was strolling carelessly along, when once more at one of the crossings, he was startled by a shout from some riders. There was straw laid down in the street, so that he had not heard them as they cantered round the corner, hurrying home to dress for dinner; and they were all but upon him, and had to rein up their horses sharply.

The party consisted of a lady and two gentlemen, one old, the other young-the latter dressed in the height of fashion, and with the supercilious air which Tom hated from his soul. The shout came from the young man, and drew Tom's attention to him first. All the devil rushed up as he recognized St. Cloud. The lady's horse swerved against his, and began to rear. He put his hand on its bridle, as if he had a right to protect her. Another glance told Tom that the lady was Mary, and the old gentleman, fussing up on his stout cob on the other side of her, Mr. Porter.

They all knew him in another moment. He stared from one to the other, was conscious that she turned her horse's head sharply, so as to disengage the bridle from St. Cloud's hand, and of his insolent stare, and of the embarrassment of Mr. Porter, and then, setting his face straight before him, he passed on in a bewildered dream, never looking back till they were out of sight. The dream gave way to bitter and wild thoughts, upon which it will do none of us any good to dwell. He put down the little girl outside the schools, turning abruptly from the mother, a poor widow in scant, well-preserved black clothes who was waiting for the child, and began thanking him for his care of her; refused Grey's pressing invitation to tea, and set his face eastward. Bitterer and more wild and more scornful grew his thoughts as he strode along past the Abbey, and up Whitehall, and away down the Strand, holding on over the crossings without paying the slightest heed to vehicle, or horse, or man. Incensed coachmen had to pull up with a jerk to avoid running over him, and more than one sturdy walker turned round in indignation at a collision which they felt had been intended, or at least which there had been no effort to avoid.

As he passed under the window of the Banqueting Hall, and by the place in Charing Cross where the pillory used to stand, he growled to himself what a pity it was that the times for cutting off heads and cropping ears had gone by. The whole of the dense population from either side of the Strand seemed to have crowded out into that thoroughfare to impede his march and aggravate him. The further eastward he got, the thicker got the crowd, and the vans, the omnibuses, the cabs, seemed to multiply and get noisier. Not an altogether pleasant sight to a man in the most Christian frame of mind is the crowd that a fine summer evening fetches out into the roaring Strand, as the sun fetches out flies on the window of a village grocery. To him just then it was at once depressing and provoking, and he went shouldering his way towards Temple Bar as thoroughly out of tune as he had been for many a long day.

As he passed from the narrowest part of the Strand into the space round St. Clement Danes' church, he was startled, in a momentary lull of the uproar, by the sound of chiming bells. He slackened his pace to listen; but a huge van lumbered by, shaking the houses on both sides, and drowning all sounds but its own rattle; and then he found himself suddenly immersed in a crowd, vociferating and gesticulating round a policeman, who was conveying a woman towards the station-house. He shouldered through it-another lull came, and with it the same slow, gentle, calm cadence of chiming bells. Again and again he caught it as he passed on to Temple Bar; whenever the roar subsided, the notes of the old hymn tune came dropping down on him like balm from the air. If the ancient benefactor who caused the bells of St. Clement Danes' Church to be arranged to play that chime so many times a day is allowed to hover round the steeple at such times, to watch the effect of his benefaction on posterity, he must have been well satisfied on that evening. Tom passed under the Bar, and turned into the Temple another man, softened again, and in his right mind.

"There's always a voice saying the right thing to you somewhere, if you'll only listen for it," he thought. He took a few turns in the court to clear his head, and then found Harry East reclining on a sofa, in full view of the gardens and river, solacing himself with his accustomed cheroot.

"Oh, here you are," he said, making room on the sofa; "how did it go off?"

"Well enough. Where have you been?"

"In the City and at the Docks. I've been all over our vessel.

She's a real clipper."

"When do you sail?"

"Not quite certain. I should say in a fortnight, though." East puffed away for a minute, and then, as Tom said nothing, went on. "I'm not so sweet on it as the time draws near. There are more of my chums turning up every day from India at the Rag. And this is uncommonly pleasant, too, living with you here in the chambers. You may probably think it odd, but I don't half like getting rid of you."

"Thanks; but I don't think you will get rid of me."

"How do you mean?"

"I mean that I shall go with you, if my people will let me, and you will take me."

"W-h-e-w! Anything happened?"

"Yes."

"You've seen her?"

"Yes."

"Well, go on. Don't keep a fellow in suspense. I shall be introduced, and eat one of the old boy's good dinners, after all, before I sail."

Tom looked out of window, and found some difficulty in getting out the words, "No, it's all up."

"You don't mean it?" said East, coming to a sitting position by Tom's side. "But how do you know? Are you sure? What did she say?"

"Nothing. I haven't spoken to her; but it's all up. She was riding with her father and the fellow to whom she's engaged. I have heard it a dozen times, but never would believe it."

"But, is that all? Riding with her father and another man! Why, there's nothing in that."

"Yes, but there is though. You should have seen his look. And they all knew me well enough, but not one of them nodded even."

"Well, there's not much in that after all. It may have been chance, or you may have fancied it."

"No, one isn't quite such a fool. However, I have no right to complain, and I won't. I could bear it all well enough if he were not such a cold-hearted blackguard."

"What, this fellow she was riding with?"

"Yes. He hasn't a heart the size of a pin's head. He'll break hers. He's a mean brute, too. She can't know him, though he has been after her this year and more. They must have forced her into it. Ah! it's a bitter business," and he put his head between his hands, and East heard the deep catches of his laboring breath, as he sat by him, feeling deeply for him, but puzzled what to say.

"She can't be worth so much after all, Tom," he said at last, "if she would have such a fellow as that. Depend upon it, she's not what you thought her."

Tom made no answer; so the captain went on presently, thinking he had hit the right note.

"Cheer up, old boy. There's as good fish in the sea yet as ever came out of it. Don't you remember the song-whose is it? Lovelace's:-

"'If she be not fair for me,

What care I for whom she be?'"

Tom started up almost fiercely, but recovered himself in a moment, and then leant his head down again.

"Don't talk about her, Harry; you don't know her," he said.

"And don't want to know her, Tom, if she is going to throw you over. Well, I shall leave you for an hour or so. Come up to me presently at the Rag, when you feel better."

East started for his club, debating within himself what he could do for his friend-whether calling out the party mightn't do good.

Tom, left to himself, broke down at first sadly; but, as the evening wore on he began to rally, and sat down and wrote a long letter to his father, making a clean breast, and asking his permission to go with East.

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