Tom Brown's School Days, by Thomas Hughes

Chapter IX.

Finis.

“Strange friend, past, present, and to be;

    Loved deeplier, darklier understood;

    Behold, I dream a dream of good,

And mingle all the world with thee.”

TENNYSON.

IN the summer of 1842, our hero stopped once again at the well-known station: and, leaving his bag and fishing-rod with a porter, walked slowly and sadly up towards the town. It was now July. He had rushed away from Oxford the moment that term was over, for a fishing ramble in Scotland with two college friends, and had been for three weeks living on oatcake, mutton-hams, and whiskey, in the wildest parts of Skye. They had descended one sultry evening on the little inn at Kyle Rhea ferry, and while Tom and another of the party put their tackle together and began exploring the stream for a sea-trout for supper, the third strolled into the house to arrange for their entertainment. Presently he came out in a loose blouse and slippers, a short pipe in his mouth, and an old newspaper in his hand, and threw himself on the heathery scrub which met the shingle, within easy hail of the fishermen. There he lay, the picture of free-and-easy, loafing, hand-to-mouth young England, “improving his mind,” as he shouted to them, by the perusal of the fortnight-old weekly paper, soiled with the marks of toddy-glasses and tobacco-ashes, the legacy of the last traveller, which he had hunted out from the kitchen of the little hostelry; and being a youth of a communicative turn of mind, began imparting the contents to the fishermen as he went on.

“What a bother they are making about these wretched Corn-laws; here’s three or four columns full of nothing but sliding-scales and fixed duties. — Hang this tobacco, it’s always going out! — Ah, here’s something better — a splendid match between Kent and England, Brown! Kent winning by three wickets. Felix fifty-six runs without a chance, and not out!”

Tom, intent on a fish which had risen at him twice, answered only with a grunt.

“Anything about the Goodwood?” called out the third man.

“Rory-o-More drawn. Butterfly colt amiss,” shouted the student.

“Just my luck,” grumbled the inquirer, jerking his flies off the water, and throwing again with a heavy sullen splash, and frightening Tom’s fish.

“I say, can’t you throw lighter over there? we ain’t fishing for grampuses,” shouted Tom across the stream.

“Hullo, Brown! here’s something for you,” called out the reading man next moment. “Why, your old master, Arnold of Rugby, is dead.”

Tom’s hand stopped half-way in his cast, and his line and flies went all tangling round and round his rod; you might have knocked him over with a feather. Neither of his companions took any notice of him luckily; and with a violent effort he set to work mechanically to disentangle his line. He felt completely carried off his moral and intellectual legs, as if he had lost his standing-point in the invisible world. Besides which, the deep loving loyalty which he felt for his old leader made the shock intensely painful. It was the first great wrench of his life, the first gap which the angel Death had made in his circle, and he felt numbed, and beaten down, and spiritless. Well, well! I believe it was good for him and for many others in like case; who had to learn by that loss, that the soul of man cannot stand or lean upon any human prop, however strong, and wise, and good; but that He upon whom alone it can stand and lean will knock away all such props in His own wise and merciful way, until there is no ground or stay left but Himself, the Rock of Ages, upon whom alone a sure foundation for every soul of man is laid.

As he wearily laboured at his line, the thought struck him, “It may all be false, a mere newspaper lie,” and he strode up to the recumbent smoker.

“Let me look at the paper,” said he.

“Nothing else in it,” answered the other, handing it up to him listlessly. — “Hullo, Brown! what’s the matter, old fellow — ain’t you well?”

“Where is it?” said Tom, turning over the leaves, his hands trembling, and his eyes swimming, so that he could not read.

“What? What are you looking for?” said his friend, jumping up and looking over his shoulder.

“That — about Arnold,” said Tom.

“Oh, here,” said the other, putting his finger on the paragraph. Tom read it over and over again; there could be no mistake of identity, though the account was short enough.

“Thank you,” said he at last, dropping the paper. “I shall go for a walk: don’t you and Herbert wait supper for me.” And away he strode, up over the moor at the back of the house, to be alone, and master his grief if possible.

His friend looked after him, sympathising and wondering, and, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, walked over to Herbert. After a short parley, they walked together up to the house.

“I’m afraid that confounded newspaper has spoiled Brown’s fun for this trip.”

“How odd that he should be so fond of his old master,” said Herbert. Yet they also were both public-school men.

The two, however, notwithstanding Tom’s prohibition, waited supper for him, and had everything ready when he came back some half-an-hour afterwards. But he could not join in their cheerful talk, and the party was soon silent, notwithstanding the efforts of all three. One thing only had Tom resolved, and that was, that he couldn’t stay in Scotland any longer; he felt an irresistible longing to get to Rugby, and then home, and soon broke it to the others, who had too much tact to oppose.

So by daylight the next morning he was marching through Ross-shire, and in the evening hit the Caledonian canal, took the next steamer, and travelled as fast as boat and railway could carry him to the Rugby Station.

As he walked up to the town, he felt shy and afraid of being seen, and took the back streets; why, he didn’t know, but he followed his instinct. At the school-gates he made a dead pause; there was not a soul in the quadrangle — all was lonely, and silent, and sad. So with another effort he strode through the quadrangle, and into the School-house offices.

He found the little matron in her room in deep mourning; shook her hand, tried to talk, and moved nervously about: she was evidently thinking of the same subject as he, but he couldn’t begin talking.

“Where shall I find Thomas?” said he at last, getting desperate.

“In the servants’ hall, I think, sir. But won’t you take anything?” said the matron, looking rather disappointed.

“No, thank you,” said he, and strode off again to find the old Verger, who was sitting in his little den as of old, puzzling over hieroglyphics.

He looked up through his spectacles, as Tom seized his hand and wrung it.

“Ah! you’ve heard all about it, sir, I see,” said he.

Tom nodded, and then sat down on the shoe-board, while the old man told his tale, and wiped his spectacles, and fairly flowed over with quaint, homely, honest sorrow.

By the time he had done, Tom felt much better.

“Where is he buried, Thomas?” said he at last.

“Under the altar in the chapel, sir,” answered Thomas. “You’d like to have the key, I dare say.”

“Thank you, Thomas — Yes, I should very much.” And the old man fumbled among his bunch, and then got up, as though he would go with him; but after a few steps stopped short, and said, “Perhaps you’d like to go by yourself, sir?”

Tom nodded, and the bunch of keys were handed to him, with an injunction to be sure and lock the door after him, and bring them back before eight o’clock.

He walked quickly through the quadrangle and out into the close. The longing which had been upon him and driven him thus far, like the gad-fly in the Greek legends, giving him no rest in mind or body, seemed all of a sudden not to be satisfied, but to shrivel up, and pall. “Why should I go on? It’s no use,” he thought, and threw himself at full length on the turf, and looked vaguely and listlessly at all the well-known objects. There were a few of the town boys playing cricket, their wicket pitched on the best piece in the middle of the big-side ground, a sin about equal to sacrilege in the eyes of a captain of the eleven. He was very nearly getting up to go and send them off. “Pshaw! they won’t remember me. They’ve more right there than I,” he muttered. And the thought that his sceptre had departed, and his mark was wearing out, came home to him for the first time, and bitterly enough. He was lying on the very spot where the fights came off; where he himself had fought six years ago his first and last battle. He conjured up the scene till he could almost hear the shouts of the ring, and East’s whisper in his ear; and looking across the close to the Doctor’s private door, half expected to see it open, and the tall figure in cap and gown come striding under the elm-trees towards him.

No, no! that sight could never be seen again. There was no flag flying on the round tower! the School-house windows were all shuttered up: and when the flag went up again, and the shutters came down, it would be to welcome a stranger. All that was left on earth of him whom he had honoured, was lying cold and still under the chapel floor. He would go in and see the place once more, and then leave it once for all. New men and new methods might do for other people; let those who would worship the rising star; he at least would be faithful to the sun which had set. And so he got up and walked to the chapel door and unlocked it, fancying himself the only mourner in all the broad land, and feeding on his own selfish sorrow.

He passed through the vestibule, and then paused for a moment to glance over the empty benches. His heart was still proud and high, and he walked up to the seat which he had last occupied as a sixth-form boy, and sat himself down there to collect his thoughts.

And, truth to tell, they needed collecting and setting in order not a little. The memories of eight years were all dancing through his brain, and carrying him about whither they would; while beneath them all, his heart was throbbing with the dull sense of a loss that could never be made up to him. The rays of the evening sun came solemnly through the painted windows above his head; and fell in gorgeous colours on the opposite wall, and the perfect stillness soothed his spirit by little and little. And he turned to the pulpit, and looked at it, and then, leaning forward with his head on his hands, groaned aloud. “If he could only have seen the Doctor again for one five minutes; have told him all that was in his heart, what he owed to him, how he loved and reverenced him, and would by God’s help follow his steps in life and death, he could have borne it all without a murmur. But that he should have gone away for ever without knowing it all, was too much to bear.” —— “But am I sure that he does not know it all?” — the thought made him start — “May he not even now be near me, in this very chapel? If he be, am I sorrowing as he would have me sorrow — as I should wish to have sorrowed when I shall meet him again?”

He raised himself up and looked round; and after a minute rose and walked humbly down to the lowest bench, and sat down on the very seat which he had occupied on his first Sunday at Rugby. And then the old memories rushed back again, but softened and subdued, and soothing him as he let himself be carried away by them. And he looked up at the great painted window above the altar, and remembered how when a little boy he used to try not to look through it at the elm-trees and the rooks, before the painted glass came — and the subscription for the painted glass, and the letter he wrote home for money to give to it. And there, down below, was the very name of the boy who sat on his right hand on that first day, scratched rudely in the oak paneling.

And then came the thought of all his old school-fellows; and form after form of boys, nobler, and braver, and purer than he, rose up and seemed to rebuke him. Could he not think of them, and what they had felt and were feeling, they who had honoured and loved from the first, the man whom he had taken years to know and love? Could he not think of those yet dearer to him who was gone, who bore his name and shared his blood, and were now without a husband or a father? Then the grief which he began to share with others became gentle and holy, and he rose up once more, and walked up the steps to the altar; and while the tears flowed freely down his checks, knelt down humbly and hopefully, to lay down there his share of a burden which had proved itself too heavy for him to bear in his own strength.

Here let us leave him — where better could we leave him, than at the altar, before which he had first caught a glimpse of the glory of his birthright, and felt the drawing of the bond which links all living souls together in one brotherhood — at the grave beneath the altar of him, who had opened his eyes to see that glory, and softened his heart till it could feel that bond?

And let us not be hard on him, if at that moment his soul is fuller of the tomb and him who lies there, than of the altar and Him of whom it speaks. Such stages have to be gone through, I believe, by all young and brave souls, who must win their way through hero-worship, to the worship of Him who is the King and Lord of heroes. For it is only through our mysterious human relationships, through the love and tenderness and purity of mothers, and sisters, and wives, through the strength and courage and wisdom of fathers, and brothers, and teachers, that we can come to the knowledge of Him, in whom alone the love, and the tenderness, and the purity, and the strength, and the courage, and the wisdom of all these dwell for ever and ever in perfect fulness.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38