The Whirl of Youth by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant
John Rushton's early life had been so peculiar that it was not wonderful
if he found himself very much at sea when he was first plunged into the
curious conventional life of an English University. He was older than
most of the young men whom he found there—yet not very old, if he had
not been already knocked about the world a good deal and filled with
many experiences: and the first year at least passed over his head in
great confusion, during which he let himself go with the stream in
whatsoever eddy or current he might find himself,—which perhaps was not
very profitable for his moral being, nor yet for his education properly
so called. Life in the University is even more than in other places a
congeries of whirls, one round or dance of wildly rushing figures, each
encircling some swaying standard of its own, dance of the Mænads or of
the Berserkers going on for ever in a mode that sets aside all that
peacefulness of study and learning which we all, perhaps, vainly suppose
is, or ought to be, found in the very atmosphere of these abodes of
letters. I wonder if it ever was so. Did not the young clergy whirl too,
in circles of asceticism or mutual devotion, or perhaps forbidden and
secret pleasure, one trooping after another in the earliest days?
Certainly the young Cavaliers must have done so, and likewise the young
Puritans each treading in the other's steps, holding the other's coats,
rushing round and round. It is not Fashion or Society alone that puts up
those unsteady flagstaff's and leads the wild dance around them. It is
nature, we must believe, since they exist everywhere. John got into the
rush of the idle, and flew along in a monotonous circle among them like
the merry-go-round at a fair. He did not like it much, but the whirl
caught him and plucked at his feet and set him all in motion in the
pathway of the others. And then he fell farther down into a wilder rush,
still the whirl (so called) of pleasure and dissipation: and then
recovering with an effort got back into the rush of the cultured and
æsthetic and whirled through the world of pictures and furniture and
poetry, finding no rest for the sole of his foot. His head was a little
dazed with all these gyrations: he was a steady fellow, in fact, liking
to feel firm ground under him, and to live his own way. And it was
chiefly because his guardians and best friends—though in fact the sway
of the guardians was virtually over—were intent upon conforming him to
the recognised models, and subduing his instinct to be independent, a
word into which they read other meanings, that he had come to the
University at all, a place for which he felt that he was not fitted by
previous training, nor likely to do much good in any way. At the
beginning of his second year John returned a little ashamed of himself,
feeling the strong likelihood that he would be led into one or another
of his previous follies, and the almost conviction that he would find
himself spinning like the rest in the contagion of youth and activity
before he knew.
He was pondering upon this with a little discouragement of heart,
wondering within himself with a rueful touch of humour when the first
bevy of comrades would arrive and which it would be, when a summons came
to him to go and see the Warden, which was rather an alarming call,
considering that the work which had been given to him to occupy his
vacation had not been done any more than the work of the previous year.
He pulled on accordingly that shabby little pinafore (worn the wrong way
about) of black stuff which in Oxford is called a gown, and took up his
cap and went across the quadrangle, green with the chilly greens of
October though sprinkled with yellow leaves which every breath of wind
brought down. The Warden was not an ordinary or common Don (may the rash
pen be pardoned which combines such words), but a man of note and of
judgment, though like other men he had his weaknesses. The chief of
these was that he preferred the young men of family and great position
who were put into his hands, to the humbler crew of nobodies who swarmed
around them. In the Warden, however, this was not a weakness, but a
matter of principle. When it is a weakness it is called by the
opprobrious name of snobbishness or tuft-hunting, or other still more
disagreeable appellations; but when it is a principle, it is a very
lofty one, and means that it is a finer thing to exert influence over
those who will have a great deal of power in their hands, than over
those who will have none—and that accordingly to make a great man wise
and good is a greater achievement than to influence a poor one, even if
the poor one might by chance be made into even a greater paragon of
virtue than the great. This is a perfectly solid and defensible
principle—when it is a principle, as we say; and altogether different
from that love of honours and titles which has been attributed to other
heads of houses in a less elevated way. The Warden received John with an
austere smile, followed by a look of great gravity. He said, "I hear, Mr
Rushton, and have unfortunately observed, that very little work was got
from you last year,—that, in short, your first year at the University
was to a great degree a year lost to you and no credit to the college."
"I am afraid, sir," said John, hanging his head, "that it is quite
"And now we are at the beginning of another academical year, I should
like to know what you intend. Are you to join the ranks of the idlers
for good—or perhaps I should say for bad—or do you mean to make an
effort to do better? I always like to know how a man means to begin:
then we know where we are."
"I am sure you know, sir, better than any one," said John, plucking up a
heart and facing his monitor, "that a man never means it to begin with,
even if he does badly. It's not the intention that is in fault."
"Sometimes. I admit, that is the case—often, perhaps; but I am not
sure, Mr Rushton, that to yield weakly to a passing temptation is not as
bad, or nearly so, as to begin with a plan of merely pleasing oneself.
It comes to the same thing in the end."
"I did not mean it as an excuse, sir. I was merely stating a fact."
"Very well; allowing the fact—am I to understand that you are going to
let yourself be blown about by every wind, and begin without any
intention at all?"
"That's logical, I don't doubt, sir," said John; "but naturally that is
not what I mean."
The Warden gave up the point, and resumed in a different tone. "I don't
suppose," he said, "from the opportunities I have had of seeing your
work, so much, or so little rather, as it has been, that you have any
very high expectations of success at the University—of distinguishing
yourself, in short?"
No man, however stupid, likes to be told that he has no expectations of
success; and John reddened in spite of himself. But he was very
sensible, and replied with a sort of laugh, "No; I never thought I was
clever, sir, if that is what you mean?"
The Warden did not deny that that was what he meant. But he said, "With
that conviction, and not much enthusiasm for work, will you forgive me
for asking what brought you to the University at all?"
John laughed outright at this, being struck by the humour of the
question. "If every man that came up was asked that, sir," he said, "a
great many of us would be in the same box, I'm afraid."
The Warden was not a man who disliked a straightforward answer. He
preferred a young man who stood to his guns. "That is true enough," he
said; "but there are other motives in many of these cases. Parents
insist on it—or future prospects demand it. Some men would find their
future profession barred to them without a University education; or, at
least, would find it more difficult to get on; or would be discredited
more or less among the people they are naturally with. But you, I
believe, don't contemplate entering any profession?"
The rapid reflection in John's mind that he was evidently not one of
those who was considered to be naturally in the society of people who
cared for a University degree, was inevitable; and it perhaps moved him
to the unintentional impertinence of a personal reference. "You don't
say that to Scarfield, sir," he said, quickly, "and he has no more
intention of entering a profession than I have." He said it quickly, and
repented it even more quickly than he spoke.
"Lord Scarfield," said the Warden, calmly, "is a man who will have a
great deal of influence in his generation. He will be what is called a
great man in his county; he may be a power for good or evil according as
his mind is trained now. I make this explanation for the sake of the
prejudices which are abroad on the subject, though it is one you have no
right to ask, and it has no bearing on your case."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said John; "I know I had no right to say that.
I'm aware," he added, "that I'm nobody; and it's of no consequence
whether I take my degree or not. But perhaps, sir, that's rather a new
"It may be a new view. I do not bind myself to old views. I have heard
that you are or will be rich, Mr Rushton; but you have no stake in the
country, nothing to bind you to it, and, I hear, rather a love of
wandering. You don't want to be fitted for the exercise of great
influence or to fill a great place. You have no parents, I understand,
to insist upon any special career, or whose place you would fill in the
"It is true," said John, very red and hot, "that I never saw my father;
and that he left me only money, and no place to fill, as you say, sir.
But I have a mother whom I am as anxious to please as if she were a
duchess, and no antecedents that I know of that would deprive me of a
man's usual responsibilities. But if you think, sir, that I am no
credit, and had better withdraw from the college——"
The Warden interrupted with a wave of the hand, and indeed John's voice
was somewhat choked in his throat. "I mean nothing of the kind, nothing
of the kind, Mr Rushton! You are a young man of sense. If you think a
moment you will understand my meaning—which is that, having no special
incentive, either within yourself or without, to intellectual work, I
see no object you can have in remaining at the University, if it is only
as a method of amusing yourself,—if, in short, this year is to be a
repetition of last year, I think it well for you to turn the matter over
in your mind. If,—that is the problem. It is very likely," said the
Warden, holding out his hand to be shaken, in token of dismissal, "that
you have it in you to solve it in the right way."
John went out from this interview with a great buzzing in his head, and
the sensation of having been pricked up with red-hot irons or goaded
with sharp bayonet points, for the shock was physical as well as mental.
His pulses went at railroad speed. The blood in his veins stung him, it
flew so fiercely to the heart and back again. Such a commotion within
him must have been as good for his health as the strongest dose of the
best tonic ever known. A beggar like Scarfield, he said to himself, a
mild dilettante puppy, to be coddled and cooked into a great man—and I,
nobody! A wild young brute like So-and-so to be of importance to his
country—and I, no matter, no account! If the Warden had meant to humble
him, it was a bad way to do it; if he had meant to stimulate him, to
stir up all his energies, to taunt and defy and bully him into
well-doing—then it might be a queer way, but it was an effectual way.
And no doubt that was what the Warden meant. He had been too long
accustomed to the process of flaying young men to care very much whether
it hurt them or not. If it hurt them, so much the better, perhaps. The
hopeless kind were those whom it did not hurt.
John went back to his rooms and busied himself in arranging his
books—those books especially which he had been required to work up
during the vacation, and which, alas, he had scarcely looked at—which
had been the immediate cause of the Warden's address. He looked at them
with his head on one side as if he had been looking at a picture, and
asked himself why he had not paid the proper attention to his orders,
and thus put himself above the reach of such a reproof? But he knew very
well why his vacation work had been neglected. He had spent these merry
months in the society and the occupations which he loved best, among a
varying company of painters, now in one region of beauty, now in
another, in the fresh air, in the roughest quarters, drinking in
sunshine and dew, light and shade, to the very depths of his being. Ah,
that was life! No doubt it was a whirl too; and the young men rushed and
circled round with the others in clouds of smoke, in noisy rooms where
no man could hear his neighbour speak—sometimes, too, with equivocal
associates enough—a noisy ring, caring for nothing in heaven or earth
except "effects" and points of view and tones of colour. But probably,
because that was his own way, John lingered upon it, seeing all its good
things and none of its evils. A man could not be altogether idle among
all these busy men. He had to make a dash at an effect, to put in a
study, to fling colour on canvas somehow, or he could not keep his place
among them. It was not a mere rush of foolish feet, a mere following one
or another in a hackneyed round. He rushed to his own door and secured
it, "sporting his oak," according to a term which has probably grown
old-fashioned, against the inroad of those foolish feet which he heard
afar off clattering upon the staircase. He had to think: he would not be
driven away from his point by any invasion to-day.
But when the attempt upon his doors, and the shouts that accompanied it,
had died away, and the staircase was for a few minutes silent again, and
John sat down among his books to think over that problem, his mind,
instead of grappling with it, floated away to the scenes of his holiday,
to the wilds of Brittany and the trees of Fontainebleau, between which
he had divided himself. He had not gone far afield. He was not an
adventurous fellow. The places where everybody went were good enough for
him. He followed in his mind with a smile many a riotous expedition,
setting out in a tumult of shouts and fun, but gradually stilling into
quietude as one man after another came to the "bit" he wanted, or
stopped short arrested in a corner to record an impression, or dashed
with flying touches an effect of the ever-changing light; while the old
fellows, the steady, middle-aged men who had outgrown the great hopes
and ideals which still flushed the horizon of the young ones, settled
themselves and pegged away at pictures which were called, not according
to their subjects, but by their authors' names, as a Dupin, a
Merryweather, and so on—as recognisable as the painter's card among all
the bands of the cognoscenti. A smile came upon his face as he wandered
among these pleasing recollections—and then he came to with a sudden
start, and to the sense that he was not in the least considering his
problem, but only living over again the life that he loved best. What a
life it was! But he must put a stop to these reminiscences; he must
think of the question before him. Then a smile came over John's face as
he asked himself whether if he were to send the Warden a picture or a
drawing, representing the best he could do—that would please the head
of the college as well as the essay which John knew he could not do half
so well? He remembered having heard some one say that if a certain minor
canon with a beautiful voice had sung something out of the "Messiah"
when he went up into the pulpit, instead of insisting on preaching a
very poor sermon, how much better it would have been,—how much more
edifying for his audience and satisfactory for himself. Then John pulled
himself up again. The only distinct thing before him was that he did not
mean to allow himself to be beaten. They should see that he was not to
be bullied out of the University. "If the work has to be done," he said
to himself, "why, I must do it. I was a fool not to do it when I had
time. But I am not going to be beaten. I shan't write myself down an ass
to please the Warden. And here goes!"
Did he accomplish that essay? Did he read his books, the books which he
ought to have read in the Long Vacation? All I can say at this moment is
that he set himself down very squarely at his table as if he meant it,
placed one of them open before him, one which he had already looked
into, dipped his pen into the ink——
But just then there came another tumult of footsteps up the staircase,
and kicks against the closed doors. What a noise they made, one
encouraging another to "sing out" to him, "Rushton, I say! Jack, old
fellow! Confound you, can't you open?" they shouted, and a great deal
more; while John sat and grinned to himself within the castle gate.
The essay, I need not say, on which John laboured, inking himself body
and soul, was not by any means finished at one sitting. He toiled at it
during the whole of the first week which was the term of grace. It was
not a good essay. The books, read in a hurry and very imperfectly, did
not convey to him by any means all the sense that was in them; his
remarks were very conventional, and, if truth must be told, commonplace.
That was not John's line, neither is it by any means the only one in
which a man even at the University can distinguish himself. He may row
or he may run, which all the world knows are still more ready ways to
distinction, or he may play racquets or something else for the 'Varsity,
or he may at least make a good score in the college eleven—all of which
things count, at least, as much as essays. John, however, did none of
these. He knew more of some things, and these not inconsiderable things,
than some of the Dons, and he was no more to be compared with the silly
young undergraduates who carried him (sometimes) away in their whirls,
than Hyperion to a Satyr. Alas! that happens often enough: it is a
mystery, one of the greatest within mortal ken, but none of us can tell
why. With John it was different: it was in the carelessness of strength,
not the fatal lapse of weakness, that he went astray.
But he did not know how to write an essay: he did it against the grain,
and knowing all the time how bad it was, even in the midst of the
current which soon began again to rush around him. He was still sitting
at it labouring to finish it, seeing land he thought, and panting and
struggling to get to that blessed shore, when his rooms filled one
afternoon with a crowd that was very much at leisure though it had a
hundred things to do. There was a capital match on at the Parks, and he
must come to see it, they cried. And there were two fellows going out
for a spin on the river, on whose heads a great many bets were laid; and
there was—but it will not be expected of me that I should know what was
going on in an afternoon in October to occupy a band of boys calling
themselves men, and agog after any and every amusement. A few sat on the
table dangling their legs, and shutting out the light from John's
laboured page, while the others stood about—one pair calling out of the
window over their shoulders remarks upon the passers-by, and another
pair inside lunging at each other with John's foils, and a few more
turning over the yellow novels of which he had always a great stock. "I
say, Rushton," they cried, "come along; you're losing all the afternoon
on that rot. We shan't see half of the match if you don't look sharp."
"Who would have thought of Jack turning out a sap," cried another, who
was from Eton, and used the language of that valuable seminary.
"A fellow with his pockets full of money," cried another, "and nobody to
call him over the coals."
"Oh, look here," cried the men at the window; "here's old Chortles going
out for a walk, and Peters after him. Oh, you fellows, shouldn't you
like to be Peters, going out for an hour and a half's viva voce,
ambulando! that's what it is to be a pet of old Chortles, oh ho! oh
Chortles, it may be here said, was an affectionate nickname, or
otherwise, applied to the Warden, on account of a peculiarity in his
"Jove," cried the others, "if there isn't Scarfield sailing along with
the Jolly Bruiser right across old Chortles' nose. By George, what's
going to happen? Chortles' got an eye like a hawk, though he pretends to
wear glasses, and Scarry, poor wretch, is as blind as a bat. Oh, good
Lord!" cried the spectators, in tones of awe.
Three other young men precipitated themselves on the shoulders of the
foregoing to see the fun, as they said: that a dilettante young
nobleman, the pink of propriety, should know the Jolly Bruiser at all,
was an unthought-of delight, and all the company crowded to see, if not
with their own yet with others' eyes.
"Oh, Lord!" reported the first speaker, "to see Scarry sailing on, with
a deal of side, too—not a thought of what he's coming to. Bravo,
Peters! he's putting up a signal, but the blind ass doesn't see.
Bruiser's in a dead funk now, trying to run away—Scarry's got hold of
his arm. Oh, by Jove!"
"What's up now?" they all cried.
"Peters' behaving like a brick," said another, over his shoulder.
"Pointing over to the other side—to Shrimpton's, by all that's
dreadful!—where the last thing out is Chortles himself as large as
life. Out of the frying-pan into the fire for Peters, eh?"
"Did he think he'd do it, then?" said another. "I say, you fellows,
don't squeeze a man flat! Chortles ain't so innocent as he looks, not by
a long way. Gives a nod, as much as to say I'll come to you by-and-by;
and goes for Scarry straight——"
Here there was a chorus of laughter, suddenly subdued.
"Silence, you fellows! he's looking this way. Just one glance, Rushy,
but he sees it's your windows, and you're in for it. Oh, Jove! to see
the Warden touching his hat to Jim Tucker! Jim squashed, the unjolliest
Bruiser you ever saw, half a foot shorter at the least, makes
tracks—and, Lord! to see Chortles holding Scarry with his eye! I'd give
all my lands and castles to hear what he says!"
"Ah! it's all very well for Scarry," said another—"cool as a cucumber,
don't you know, with nothing against him, and a title at his back;
whereas if it were you or me——"
"Explaining he is, by Jove! Don't you see old Chortles shutting him up?
Come to me this evening after hall—that's what he's saying, bet you
anything! Oh, I wish I could be there to see; and, Lord! there he goes
across to Shrimpton's: Peters has remembered, poor old man! He's being
led to execution, and he knows it. It was all to save that prig Scarry,
who will never lift a finger for him."
"I say, you fellows, are we going to stay here all the afternoon?"
said—this incident being over—another of the band. John had been
sitting, his pen suspended in his hand, during the little episode above
described. The cloud of young men at the window had shut out the light,
while the cries and stamps of the fencers who had carried on through all
the tumult came in now suddenly like a solo after a chorus. John's ideas
were not very quick to come at any time, and that last bit of struggling
towards the end of a very unwilling literary exercise is perhaps the
worst of all. You are breathless with sight of the shore so near at
hand, and longing to get to it. He had not been able to refuse his
interest to these incidents as seen from the window, and of course he
wanted to be out in the fresh air, and the contagion of restlessness in
the others—who could not keep either legs or arms quiet for a moment,
and now began to sprawl all about his room, some taking sides in the
mock contest between the fencers, some pulling about his books, his
photographs on the mantelpiece, and even his portfolios of sketches in
the corner—gained on him in spite of himself: and the obstinacy of
pride was not perhaps a very sustaining motive, though indeed it was
this alone, and not any pleasure in work or desire to do it well, which
chained him to that hopeful manuscript. "I wish you'd go," he said, with
the straightforwardness which was not out of place in that society.
"Brunton, there's drinks in the cupboard; you know where to find them.
Help yourselves, for goodness' sake, and go! I must get this confounded
thing before I stir, and how can I get on with all of you ballyragging
"Rubbish!" said Brunton. "Leave it till after. You can get it done
"What other time?" said John, setting his elbows square on the table.
"I never knew Jack to be a sap before," said the Eton man. "Come on, and
leave him to his fate."
Then one detachment went rushing down the staircase, filling the air
with the tumult of their steps and voices. But the fencers and their
audience still kept the ground.
"What a deuced waste of time!" said Brunton, turning over the sheets.
"By George, Jack, you'll spoil the college! Look here, Gaison, and blush
if you can for your confounded swagger of a place. See what we can do
here—and the first week of term, too!"
"Rushy, my boy, you're too good to live!" said the other man.
"I'll tell you what!" said John, in his impatience—but he checked
himself, for the fencers had put up their foils and were preparing to
"Come along," they said; "let's look up the Bruiser and see how he likes
to meet old Chortles full face in the High. Let's go and have a game of
billiards. Let's have a stroll somewhere. Let's do something. That
fellow with his pen is enough to bore a man out of his life."
Brunton alone stayed, the most intimate, but not the most desirable, of
John's friends. He was intimate solely because he had made up his mind
to be so, independent of John's sentiments, perhaps because he had an
admiration for John—which was the most flattering way of explaining it,
and even over a sensible fellow like John Rushton exercised a certain
agreeable influence—perhaps for other reasons. He had sought him by
night and day. He had always been at hand when the young man wanted
diversion, or even merely a reason for amusing himself—and the
consequence was that Brunton had grown into a necessity, a sort of
accompaniment to John's life. He had helped himself to some of the
drinks in the cupboard, and now sat astride on a chair with his glass in
his hand staring across the back of it at John's composition which had
been resumed with doubtful success. John was unspeakably burdened and
angered by the presence of this spectator, but it is not so easy to
dismiss a single visitor as it is to adjure a crowd to go away. At
length "I say, old fellow," Brunton said.
John made a movement of impatience with his hand, and laboured on.
"I say, when are you coming down by Iffley, the Old Hatchet way? What
jolly days we had there last term. By the way, there's some one
there——Beg pardon, old man, if I'm interrupting——"
"Of course you're interrupting," cried John. "Look here. I'm going to
finish this before I budge, if the devil himself were to interfere." He
threw down his pen and looked his friend in the face. "If you've got
anything to say that wants saying, say it and be done with it in the
"Ah! I knew I'd fetch you so!" cried the other. "Well, I'll tell you
what it is. There's a little person there that wants to see you very
badly—and a very pretty little person too. She says, 'Ain't Mr Rushton
up this year?—ain't Mr Rushton a-coming out to see us? Me and mother
thinks a deal of Mr Rushton. He ain't a bit like the rest of you
"Well?" said John, red, but fierce.
"Well! I told her I'd tell you. It's a poor compliment for the rest of
us, Jack: but you've only to go in and win."
"Stuff," said John, "and fudge and bosh, and whatever else there is
that's silly. I understand what she means. I have some respect for a
woman, whoever she is."
"Oh, respect!" said Brunton; "I expect she would like something a little
warmer than that. And she says you promised to bring her something the
very first day you were up—and you've been up a week—hence those
"I promised to bring her something?" said John, with confusion: and then
he became fiery red once more.
"Don't you think you'd like a stroll?" he added; "don't you think you'd
like a game at billiards? there's always some one about that has nothing
to do. It's a pity to lose the whole afternoon here."
"That's a broad hint, anyhow," cried the other, laughing. "Well, I'll
go—but don't forget the Hatchet, old fellow, and the arbour in the
garden, and the maid of the inn. Oh, I'm off. You need not spoil your
books throwing them at me."
When he was alone John put down his pen again and took out his
handkerchief and wiped his forehead. His countenance was crimson and the
blood all a-boil in his veins. "What a fool I am, what a double-dashed
fool I have been," he said to himself. And it was some time before he
could resume the work at which he had so laboured and struggled. This
was a greater interruption than anything made by the comrades who had
thronged and troubled him. Yet after a while he surmounted this also,
and betook himself to his work with such energy that he did at last
struggle through. Well! it was not very much when it was done: probably
no less valuable piece of work ever took so much time before. It had
cost him a great deal of trouble, and now that it was completed it was
of less than no use to anybody. The unfortunate tutor to whom he would
have to read it would groan his head off before it was finished, and
then it would be flung with relief into the fire. And yet he had spent
all these days at it, cudgelled his brains, and almost cudgelled some of
the idle fellows who had tried to stop him—for this wretched thing that
was nothing, which was less than worthless! Few can perhaps see this so
distinctly and with so powerful an apprehension as John did. He put it
away in his desk with a grim smile, and then just as twilight was coming
on he went out—to stretch his limbs and fill his lungs with that damp
Oxford air which is perhaps just better than no air at all.
He was swinging along over Maudlin Bridge on his walk, "thinking hard,"
as he would have said, when there came suddenly up out of the twilight a
little figure, which stopped and clasped its hands at sight of him, with
a little cry. "Oh, is it really you, Mr Rushton?" which chimed in, in a
very troublous and distressing manner, with John's thoughts.
"And is this you, Miss—Miss Millar," he said, perturbed, "so far from
"Yes," she said, "it's a bit late. I've been in town doin' two or three
little things for mother, and I see it was getting dark, and started
runnin'—and then I thought that would just make folks stare—and then I
saw as it was you——Oh, Mr Rushton, you've never been to see us—though
"I have only been up a very little time. I—I have had a great deal to
"Ah," said the girl, "I know what you gentlemen has to do—just to find
out every day something new to amuse yourselves—not like us as has to
"I assure you, Mary, it was work with me—real work, though you may not
believe it," he said.
She came a little nearer to him at the sound of her own name, and,
looking up, said in a subdued tone, "I'd believe anything you said."
Fiercely red once more became John, hot as with a furnace-blast: but
nobody saw this, not even the pair of eyes that were for a moment lifted
"I'm afraid I don't deserve as much as that," he said, humbly. "I say
things I don't mean, just like the rest."
"I wouldn't believe anybody but yourself as said so. Perhaps you didn't
mean it then, Mr Rushton, when you promised me that."
"What did I promise you, Mary?"
"Oh, Mr Rushton, you can't—you can't have forgotten! You promised me a
nice gold locket with your picture in it."
They were walking on now side by side in the growing dimness, and John
had not even daylight to protect him, or the expression of his face.
"My picture?" he said, in dismay. "Was I such a fool as all that? You
shall have the gold locket and welcome, Mary; but you don't mean to say
you would like my ugly mug inside?"
"Oh, ugly, indeed!" she said; "that's just what I should like best."
Poor John, not knowing what to say, overwhelmed with humiliation and
shame, yet a little ruefully elated, too, that she should like his ugly
mug, made a clumsy diversion by a total change of subject, and asked
hurriedly whether anything had happened since he had been away.
"Oh, happened!" she cried, annoyed not to pursue the more interesting
subject. "Nothing ever happens down Iffley way: at least no more than
the old thing as mother is always at me to—marry: and I shouldn't
wonder if I did some day, just for a change——"
"And who," said John, with that instant impulse to kick him, which is
natural to his kind, "is the happy man?"
"Oh, you know, Mr Rushton. It's Jim Kington, as you've heard before.
It's a bit hard," said the girl, with something like a suppressed sob,
"after seeing so much of you gentlemen and your ways, to settle down for
life with such a common man."
"Would you like, then, to marry—a gentleman?" John said. He
did not know why he said it—unthinking, and yet not without a
thought—wantonly, because it was dangerous, because he wanted to see
what she would say.
"Oh, Mr Rushton!" she said, hanging her head: and suddenly, to his
consternation, he felt a timid touch, her hand stealing within his arm.
"It wouldn't be for your good, Mary," he said, with energy. "You don't
know what you would have to go through. How would you like to have
people looking down upon you, laughing at you behind your back, perhaps
mocking you before your face, and all your little faults made a fuss
about, and nobody to be at ease with. I don't think you would find it a
"If you think I have such bad manners, Mr Rushton! but not when I take
pains. I know how to hold my head as high as the best, and give them
back as good——And, besides, I am very quick at picking things up, and
I'd soon learn——"
"Some things are not so easily learned," said John. "I don't think you'd
find it a happy fate."
"Oh, Mr Rushton," she said, again hanging with a little weight upon his
arm, holding it close, "why should I mind if he loved me?—I'd be 'appy
anywhere, if I never saw a single soul, only to pass my life along
She said "'im," but meant "you," plainer than words could say. And John
for a moment stood still, planting his feet on the soil, feeling the
whirl catch them, the quickening current, the sweep of a senseless
flood: yet conscious to the very core that he did not love the girl—not
the very least in the world.
It was not very long after this evening walk that John found himself in
a company of the very élite of his college. They knew themselves to be
the élite, and that was enough for them. Sometimes their claim to this
place was rudely assailed by outsiders; sometimes it was the subject of
mockery: but this mattered very little to the certainty which filled
their youthful bosoms. They did not sit upon tables and hang out of
windows like the others. The table in the centre of the room was strewn
with prints, with photographs from pictures, and curiosities of all
kinds. There was a little Tanagra figure on the mantelpiece, holding a
central place in its little shrine of red velvet, and other ornaments of
equal refinement arranged with the greatest care on either side. On the
wall above, usually occupied by an imbecile mirror, was a round picture
which Lord Scarfield, the owner of the rooms, who had a lisp, sometimes
talked of as "my Tondo" and sometimes as "my Bottithelli." It was but a
copy, I need not say, but it came a great deal into his conversation. He
himself sat in an antique chair with a high back, at one side of the
fireplace, and his little colourless head, with its very light hair,
stood out almost like an ivory from the dark damask. He was aware of the
fact and liked it, and so were the other habitués of these rooms aware
of it, feeling themselves called upon to be struck by this, as they
came in one by one, and nodded at their host, and sat down somewhere
within reach of the table if they could, if not in twos and little
groups round the wall, where a number of abstruse conversations went on,
chiefly about art, but likewise upon social subjects. John had been
drawn into this supreme company chiefly on the score that he knew
something practically of art, though they thought in a rude way, without
a due sense of its fine affinities and symbolisms—but yet with a
vulgar, practical acquaintance which no doubt counted for something.
When he went in Scarfield was giving a description of that meeting with
the Warden which John's other friends had watched from the window.
"He ith always very thivil," said the little lord, "but I had every
reathon to expect a row. Peterth made me a thign to cut and run—but why
thould I cut and run? The Bruither is a perthonage in his way—and
Thortles loves a perthonage. I was very punctual after Hall—likes you
to be punctual, Thortles doth. Thaid he was very thorry to thee me in
thuch company. 'Why, thir?' I thaid. Thortles taken aback by that. 'Why
thir! do I need to thay why?' 'Yeth thir, pleath,' thaid I, and I waited
for an answer. Never thaw a man more done in my life."
"Chortles like a nettle, soft as silk," cried another, losing the thread
of his metaphor, "when you face him out."
"It wathn't that," said Scarfield; "it wath theething the kid in his
mother'th milk—that's what it was. Very fond of talking to me about my
influence and tho forth. 'You tell me, thir,' thaid I, 'to exercise a
good influence. Can't do that without knowing men of all thorts, thir,
don't you know? Bruither's a very thelect thort. Had a very improving
conversation—lotth of information in it. Know his thort quite well now.
Able to exercise influence. Just your own line, thir; what you've always
"Bravo, Scarfield!" said his intimates, in chorus. "Nobody can manage
Chortles like old Scar."
"Laughed and stared a bit, and then thays he, 'If it's from tho high a
principle, Scarfield!'—and let me off. Poor old Peterth got it hot
after me. You're bound to put it out on thome one when you are a Don."
"I say," said an eager youth, "where can one get anything like that
jolly little statue there? I'd give a lot of money for one. I suppose it
costs the eyes out of your head."
"It costs personal research and knowledge," said another, "which are
more expensive still. There are imitations, however, which I daresay
you'd find do just as well."
"Where could one get it, Rushton?" said the young man. "You're not so
high and mighty as these other fellows—you'll give a man an answer.
I've got rooms as bare as a post, and I must get them fit for a
Christian to live in."
"Christian!" said the man at the other side. "Don't go in for that
bastard incongruity called Christian art, for goodness' sake: and don't
put questions of that sort in Scarfield's rooms. He's what they call an
eclectic, don't you know—mixes up styles and things in a way that makes
you shudder. A priceless Tanagra there and a heavy-jowelled Botticelli
over it—saints and angels, what a mixture! I could show you——"
"A lot of sweepings of the excavations," said John, in the boy's ear.
"Oh, will you, please?" said the lad. He was eager to follow wherever
the learned might lead.
"Influence is the great thing," said another, whose name was Sutton.
"Give us only a little time and we'll move the world. But nobody half
owns the power of it yet. I was speaking to some of those fellows by the
river the other day. I told them they didn't see their power. Why,
they've got the lever in their hands to upset everything, if they
choose! Talk of a House of Lords! I told them they're all hereditary
legislators by right of their knotty fists and the sweat of their
"Let 'em wath it off first," said Scarfield, solemnly, from his chair.
"Why should they wash it off? We must meet the people on their own
ground. Would you let a little squeamish prejudice or nicety come
between you and the masters of the world?"
"I take a little exception to that," said another. "Why shouldn't they
all learn to be gentlemen in their habits? Oxford fellows scattered here
and there in every workshop and trades union, and so forth—that is what
would do good. I said so to Bristowe up at the People's Palace, as they
call it. I said, 'Get a few Oxford men to sit in the reading-room and
mix with those fellows.' You would see a transformation in no time."
"We took a lot to Florence, don't you remember, Bailey?" said a third
young man; "all excited with what they were going to see: but they were
rather puzzled, though, when we got there. We had to talk ourselves
hoarse explaining—and I doubt if they were much the wiser."
"Don't say so, Harry! Lady Betty had them out to her villa to tea, and
how they did stare and gaze at the landscape—don't you remember?—and
then at her, in her shimmering silks, like a lady of King Arthur's
court—her face full of expression, and that reminiscent expressiveness
in particular, which is the special portion of——"
"Woman is the great mystery after all," said a thoughtful young man.
"The ladies did their best, I must say, out there," said Harry,
neglecting this challenge. "But then those fellows expected, don't you
know, that it was to be the same in town. We told them it couldn't be
just the same, with all a woman's engagements. Nothing much to do in
Florence, but a whirl in London—but some of them didn't see it. We told
them to come to our rooms and welcome; but after a while they didn't
seem to care so much for our rooms. They want social advancement, don't
you see—and to make friends there will be of use."
"The Bruither, tho far as I could make out," said Scarfield, "wanths a
public-house—thays they all come to public-houthes in the course of
time. And that's his ambition—if you like to call it thocial
advancement, you can."
"The Bruiser is abnormal," said Bailey. "He's a creation of false needs
and false interests, so far as Oxford is concerned. Curiosity to know
what such a being is like must have been your motive, Scarfield: for I
ask what would the highest illumination and the purest influence do for
a man like that—all physical force and brute strength—with an ambition
for a public-house: a public-house!"
"I shouldn't mind starting a public-house myself," said Sutton; "fine
sphere, if you approach it rightly. Why, you might get the very lives of
all these fellows in your hands, and play upon them like an instrument.
Get them to drop their beer, don't you know, little by little. I once
offered to take the pledge myself if one of them would. And he did—or
rather she did, for it was a woman, as it happened. Oh, they're very
open to influence! You can get them to do almost anything—for a time."
"Now it is fully established what an Oxford Settlement can do in a poor
neighbourhood, we have the game in our own hands," said another. "Give
them refined pleasures—that's the thing—and you see how it answers. In
Bethnal Green they respond to Brahms and Rubinstein, as none of your
smart people do. You see it is virgin soil—they never knew till now
what beautiful things were."
"And yet they say the People's Palace is a failure!"
"Ah, I told you! It was not in the hands of University men. I said to
Bristowe, 'Don't you think a few Oxford men mixing among them would soon
change the tone?' He didn't seem to see it. But there is nothing else.
Diffuse culture among the masses: let them see what it has done for
us: give them examples to study as well as principles. There is no
other way to work—at least it is the best. Christ and the apostles did
the same sort of thing. It was more rudimentary in their day.
Civilisation has multiplied the wants of humanity, and scientific
methods have increased our power. We have got everything in our hands.
What are politics or theories? a settlement of ours in every district,
leaving our own sphere to leaven theirs—that is what the people want."
"When they don't like the Bruither better, and his public-house," said
Scarfield. "I had thome of those fellowth up once to thee my Tondo. They
stared, and then they made their remarks. 'I don't call her pretty,'
they thaid—'not a bit; and nobody could write like that. I'm sure I
couldn't write with my hand out like that; and them shavers in wings
making eyes at her: and she might a put a rag on the babby to thave it
from catching cold.'"
Scarfield was something of a mimic, and the party was in his rooms, and
there was a laugh, but a laugh very speedily suppressed.
"That's not my experience," said Bailey. "I find them full of respect.
If you fellows would only put your shoulders to the wheel, and all of
you do something, by Heaven we'd move the world."
"Don't sneer at politics," said a young man, who had just come in. "You
should first feel the swing of them, and hundreds of fellows roaring at
your back. I'm in with all the strikes, don't you know. I tell them they
oughtn't to stand it—not a day. A man's wages should be what he can
live on comfortably with his wife and children, not any cursed balance
of trade. What does it matter whether the masters get their profit or
not? Confound the masters!—selfish beggars, setting up their unions
too, forsooth, as if they had an equal right. The right's with the
masses that have the work to do. When I see them sitting down contented
and taking whatever is offered them, off I go and hold a meeting or two.
And as for response!—if you once heard them shouting with you, by Jove
you'd never try any of your dilettante ways again."
"Thoftly, my good fellow, thoftly," said Scarfield, from his chair. "We
don't like such coarth thpeaking here——"
"Brutal," said Bailey, "brutal, encouraging all their worst instincts.
That is not, from my point of view, the mission of the Oxford man. I
wouldn't interfere with these rude problems: if you let them alone they
will settle themselves. Why must they marry and fill the world with
hungry children and get into difficulties about wages? I don't want to
marry. I make myself a happy life of art and refined enjoyment. Why
shouldn't they? I have no sympathy with your shouting, your talk of
wages, and so forth. If they did without wives and children they would
get on well enough. I can't afford wives and children. Scarfield's
Botticelli to look at, or one of your own if you can afford it, is
enough for me."
"There's something in strikes when you can do it," said a youth in one
of the groups by the wall. "Schoolmasters, now—I'm going to be a
schoolmaster—if we could strike, it would be a fine thing; but there's
a hundred beggars waiting to step into your shoes."
"Then you must stop them," said John, in reply, who was nearest to him.
"Pull down their houses, burn their books, blow up their
schoolrooms—blind them or deafen them, if you can, still better; then
they would be out of your way."
"Oh, I say," said the youth, "that would be a cowardly business; that
would not be fair fighting; that would be a cad's way."
"There are no cads," said John. "Everything's fair on your side, nothing
on the other—that's the new doctrine. Ask Sutton: he knows."
"Everything's fair against a rat who goes against his own side," cried
the revolutionary; "everything's fair against the masters. Whenever
there's force against you, you've got a licence to meet it any way you
can. That is strategy, it's not a cowardly way."
"I am all for the rights of man, too," cried another youth, standing up
against the wall. "And Chortles is brute force, and he's going to send
me down—what am I to do?"
A sudden pause came upon the assembly. It was a fate to which all of
them were subject, and the boldest held his breath. Besides, what could
be done? there was nothing to be suggested amid all the expedients which
theoretical revolution has in store.
"I dare thay, Ripton, you deserved it," said Scarfield, in a subdued
"One is powerless," said Sutton aloud, with a sigh; "it's against
natural justice, but there's no help for it. You can't stand up alone."
"We could not stand up against Chortles if he were to send us all
down," another voice, still more subdued and solemn, said.
"You could bully him after in all the newspapers."
"Throw stones at his windows—but they'd have you up for that: blow up
the next fellow that is given your rooms."
These suggestions were made with a perilous inclination towards
frivolity which had to be stopped in the bud.
"We have no combination," said Bailey. "We're an inferior lot altogether
to the working men. Besides, the whole case is different. We pay the
Dons, don't you see, they don't pay us, and——Well, it's not a thing to
argue about. If Chortles were to send us all down——"
"Well, this is a fine thing," said the youth, who was desperate; "you're
going to move the world and upset the whole country, and you daren't jaw
old Chortles, not one of you. And I've got to go down to-morrow, and
what shall I say to my people?" the poor young fellow cried.
They all looked at him aghast, compassionate, no doubt, but quite
unwilling to share the stigma thus put upon him, or identify themselves
with his disgrace. It was John who took him by the arm and led him out,
and was the confidant of his trouble, which indeed was no out of the
way, or original, or unusual trouble, but only a tale of idleness, of
recklessness, of the usual rush and round of careless life. "I went and
apologised too," the young fellow said. "I give you my word, Rushton, it
wasn't all billiards and that, as Chortles thinks—I used to go to play
the violin, you know, for Bailey—and carry their messages for them, and
go to their meetings. I've done a little myself in the East End," he
added, with forlorn pride. "But not one of them will speak up for me, or
tell Chortles if I was a fool that it wasn't all in the one way. Scarry
can do what he likes with Chortles, but he never would mix himself up
with a fellow that's sent down."
"I am very sorry for you," said John, "and I don't want to preach: but
after this, if I were you, I would stick to my own business and get that
done first of all."
"Oh, don't you think, then, as they say," cried the young unfortunate,
"that it's a fine thing to work for other people? That's what they all
say—to do good to the lower class that haven't our advantages."
"And in what way did you think you could do good to the lower class?"
said John, grimly: but he did not pursue his subject. He kept the young
man in view, and soothed him, which was perhaps better, and saw him off
next day in somewhat better spirits, and with a certain sense that he
was a martyr to his principles stealing into his soul—which he was able
to communicate to his mother, at least, consoling, nay, making that poor
lady proud, even of the sending down.
John had quite enough to do, however, with his own difficulties, which
he had brought on himself as he well knew. He too had gone speechifying
in his time, and tried to do good to the lower classes, carried on by
the whirl of the movement of the others, whose sense of the high
superiority of the Oxford man, and his certain effect upon the world, he
had not perhaps ever seriously, certainly never enthusiastically,
shared. To do good to the lower classes, to make a transformation by his
mere presence, to influence the whole fabric of life and the rolling of
its wheels—John asked himself with a blush which there was no one to
perceive, what there was in him to do all this? and the very direction
which his feet took, almost against his will, gave him the information
he sought. Where was he going? he was turning mechanically towards the
road in which he knew another person—a person very easily influenced
indeed, and one who had taken too much the impressions of his mind,
unconsciously at first, perhaps unwillingly to himself—was likely to be
found. It was not an appointment: that would have alarmed her as well as
him; though he was not now so sure of that as he had been. Was it
possible that perhaps little Mary, innocent little girl as she seemed
and was, was playing for what were to her high stakes, and risking a
good deal in the spirit of the gamester? He did not allow this, and yet
it came in. But that did not in the least extenuate his guilt or explain
how his footsteps sought that way and no other in those early twilights,
now wan with the November chill. What game was he playing? Was it to
lose—everything—his head, his feet, his self-command in some whirl of
foolish feeling which was not passion or anything real at all? or was it
to win—in any shameful way? Certainly not that, certainly not that. He
said it over to himself raising his head, setting down his foot with a
stamp upon the ground. But while he made this vow to himself, once more
against the pale background of the willows and the dusk of the damp
fields that little figure rose, with its air of fictitious surprise.
"Oh, Mr Rushton! are you really walking this way again?" she said.
"But, my dear little Mary, your mother, who is a kind woman, will never
press you to marry him—if you don't like him," John said.
"Oh, Mr Rushton, you don't know what mother is. She says it's for my
good. They always think it is for our good when they go against us. She
says I'd be a deal better with a house of my own and a man to work for
me, instead of slaving in the bar drawing beer, and forced to laugh and
talk with all you gentlemen."
This was a new view of the matter to John. "Were you forced to laugh and
talk to us?" he said, with a sort of rueful chuckle. "That was perhaps a
pity on all sides."
"Oh, Mr Rushton!" cried Mary, "that's what mother says. It's not what I
think—don't you believe that."
"It might have been better, however, if you had thought it," John said.
"Oh, don't say so!" cried the girl. "Then I never should have known
anything better. When I think of you with your nice clean ways, and your
white shirtfronts, and your soft clothes—and Jim comes in all as he has
Mary paused with a little shudder, thinking of that honourable dew of
labour which Scarfield had gently suggested might be washed off. It gave
John the most curious, whimsical sensation of universal misunderstanding
and general topsy-turvy to hear the girl's statement of that influence
which his friends had been discussing with so much more exalted ideas of
"But surely you could get him to wash?" he said, with a laugh.
"It ain't so easy as you think," said Mary. "When you're only keeping
company they'll do it, and keep themselves tidy; but when they are
married men!—then they think only of what's comfortable," the girl
said, with a sigh. Her head inclined almost upon John's shoulder as she
made her plaint, which was half ludicrous to him, not wholly touching as
she hoped. "Oh, Mr Rushton, how can I ever make up my mind to such a
fate?" Mary said.
"But, my little girl," he said, "you know there is always one way out of
it. You needn't marry at all—at least, I mean just at present," he
"What, and 'ave mother nagging at me from morning to night?" said Mary,
hastily; and then in a softened tone, "I'd wait—ah, for twenty
years!—for one as I was really fond of," she said.
And then there was a pause, and they went on together arm in arm: and
the silence thrilled with meaning to poor little Mary, and perhaps to
the young man, too, half carried out by the tide with which he had been
so long dallying, half upon the dry ground to which he held with a sort
of desperation—"One foot on sea and one on shore." John was not of the
kind of those who are "to one thing constant never": yet he felt very
strongly the force of this statement of his position. He could not bear
to break her poor little heart, to fling her off into the arms of the
unwashed Jim; but what could he do? To marry the daughters of the masses
was not perhaps the way in which Oxford men could best influence those
masses for good—and yet why not so if all their theories were true? He
did not speak, though it was he who ought to have spoken. It was she
who, after that moment of thrilling suspense which again came to
nothing, took the word.
"I've been brought up too particular," she said. "We shouldn't be
perhaps when it's only to end in that. I've been brought up so that
I'm only fit for another spear."
"And what sphere is that, Mary?" He was a little amused, but he did,
there was no denying, press to his side a little slender hand that clung
to his arm.
"Oh, Mr Rushton, what you said yourself that time. Don't you remember,
just after you came up, you said, 'Would you like to marry a
gentleman?'" She began to cry softly in the dark, clinging to him. "Oh,
Mr Rushton, when you said that it was like opening the gate just a
little bit—to see heaven!"
"Did it look like that?" he said; his voice trembled a little. "It would
be a poor heaven, Mary. I fear it wouldn't be happy for you at all.
Think! You would have to give up your own people—your mother and
"Well," she said, "that's only like what's in the Bible—'Forget thine
own people and thy father's house.'"
"And his people, don't you know, would be very angry, and perhaps
would not—be civil. It may be very bad, but that is what they would
"Oh, Mr Rushton!" she cried, clinging closer: "but if he should have no
people—like—like—some gentlemen?" Mary did not venture yet to say
"Everybody has some one," he said, hastily, offended by this
imputation, and feeling for the moment a strong impulse to push her
away—which, however, was impossible to him. "My dear, you wouldn't like
it," he said; "you wouldn't be a bit happy; you would be out of it on
both sides. And then, fancy if the man was poor—as most of us are when
we offend our people. You think marrying a gentleman means having plenty
of money, getting everything you wish, and nice dresses and a nice
house, and all that; but it would be far worse to be poor as a
gentleman's wife than as—than in a different sphere."
His taste revolted from saying "as Jim's wife," which were the natural
words. John was not æsthetic, but to speak of a girl, even the maid of
the inn, balancing thus between two men, was more than he could do.
"Oh, Mr Rushton," she said, again, "what should I mind being poor if—if
he loved me?" Her head touched his breast with a little soft sensation
as of a—dreadful thought, for which he loathed himself!—a little soft
cat rubbing itself against him. But yet it moved him all the same. Then
Mary said, very low, raising the whiteness of her face towards
him—"But, oh, Mr Rushton!—oh, Jack!—you're not poor!"
His heart gave a startled leap, and then subsided. He laughed aloud,
which broke the spell of the darkness and the whispering tones. "No,
Mary," he said; "I'm not poor. I'll give you a little dot to make you
happy with Jim. You shall have enough to set up in a Barley Mow of your
own, where Jim, will make short work with the gentlemen. Have nothing
more to do with the gentlemen, Mary. Now, come, let's step out, and I'll
see you home."
"Oh, Jack!" she cried; "Jack!"—still clinging to his arm.
"No more of that, my dear little girl; no more of that. It would be a
great mistake for both of us. Play is very nice, but not when it goes
too far. Come, you shall have a nice little fortune, which will be far
better for you" (he remembered that she would not know what dot
meant); "and marry Jim, and make him wash, and keep him up to the mark.
He is a fine strong fellow; he looks very nice in his Sunday clothes.
Come, little Mary, look up and don't cry. Tell your mother she's to come
and see me to-morrow. We'll do it all honestly and above board. We've
nothing to be ashamed of, thank God! I'll always think of you as a sweet
little friend, very kind to me; and you'll think of me, Mary——"
"Oh, Mr Rushton!—oh, Mr Rushton!" she cried, drooping from his arm,
still hanging on tight: but with something different in the hold,
something—John felt it almost with a pang—which meant perhaps that she
had been able to keep her footing, too, in spite of the dragging of the
tide, which had almost, yet more nearly, carried himself away. Then Mary
had a sudden little access of pride, and let his arm drop. "If you think
I'm not good enough, after—after saying such things and making me
believe! But you're all the same; you are nothing but deceivers, as
mother says. Or if you think I care for your money! I want none of your
money!—as if it was got out of you for a breach of promise or something
to buy me off! I go into court on a breach of promise to get money out
of you! I would rather die!"
"And there's no question of promise, breached or otherwise," said John.
"Here we are, Mary, in sight of your home; and you'll send your mother
to me to-morrow. Good-bye, my dear, and good-bye——"
"I won't!" she murmured, but it was under her breath. And John stood and
watched till she had reached the spot where the lights of the little
tavern shone out upon the road. Then he turned and walked quickly home.
He was not very comfortable, poor fellow. It had cost him something to
drop poor Mary's clinging hands, and something more to hurt her
feelings, which he sadly feared he must have done. It was brutal, he
felt. If it had been a lady to whom he had spoken so, what flogging
would have been too much for him? And yet, what else—what else could he
have done? Suppose he had married her instead? The suggestion filled him
with consternation. He said hurriedly to himself that it would not,
could not have made her happy. And yet he felt that he was ashamed of
himself as he marched home. He had played a poor part. It was heroic in
its way, if the truth were known; but of that wretched kind of heroism
which felt almost like shame. To treat a woman badly! He never thought,
whatever censure he might incur, that such a thing as that would ever be
said of him. And the dot, which had occurred to him on the spur of the
moment to quiet his conscience—no doubt it would be flung back to him
in his teeth, filling him with double shame.
He was still uncertain and excited about this when Mrs Brown, the
landlady of the Old Hatchet, appeared in his rooms next day. His heart
began to beat at the sight of her. He was no cynic. He thought it just
as likely as not, and almost hoped for the sake of some foolish
ideal—that she was coming to fling his promise back in his throat. But
Mrs Brown was very friendly, with no warlike ideas. "My Mary said as I
was to come to see you, sir," she said. "I doubt she's got some
nonsense in her head, for it don't sound likely: but something about a
present, as she said you was a-going to give her for her wedding—I'm
sure it's most wonderful kind of you, if it's true."
"It is quite true, Mrs Brown," said John, with a curious sick sensation,
something between disappointment and relief. The ground seemed somehow
cut from beneath his feet, leaving him faintly struggling for standing.
Neither indignation nor lamentation—neither the moan of injured love
nor the resentment of virtue assailed. A wedding-present! how much more
rational, how much better every way to call it that—but he made a gasp
for his breath before he went on. "Yes, Mrs Brown, it is quite true. I
admire your daughter very much. I am sure she is as good as gold."
"That she is, sir," cried the good woman, with energy; "and a girl had
need be that, I can tell you, to see all you gentlemen so familiar and
paying her such compliments and never to give way, not a step."
"It's very creditable, indeed," said John, with a smile, which was a
little rueful. He would have liked to laugh, but dared not—nor did he
feel at all like laughing if truth must be told. "I am going to leave
Oxford," he said, "and I'd like to show my appreciation. I hope you are
quite sure that the young man is worthy of her," he added, as he pulled
his cheque-book out of its drawer.
"Oh, sir, he's worthy of her if ever a man was—and they've kep' company
so long, ever since she was a little slip of a girl. I'm not a bit
afraid of that. Lord, Mr Rushton, you don't mean to say as this is all
for my Mary! A hundred pound! if it had been a matter of ten to buy her
her wedding-gown——Sir, sir," cried the good woman, getting up from her
chair, "there was nothing between you but good-day and good-night, for
the Lord's sake tell me that!"
"Never!" said John, the blood flushing to his face—"on my honour, and
as God hears me: nothing but friendship and admiration for as good a
little girl as there is in the world."
Mrs Brown went away well pleased, with the cheque folded up very small
in her purse. She drew her own conclusions—which were that John had
endeavoured to establish other relations and had been confounded by
Mary's goodness and sense of her own place. "He's been a-trying to carry
on," she said to herself, nodding her head, "and has just got as good a
settin' down as ever a gentleman had: or else he's asked her to marry
him, private-like, and she wouldn't. Oh, trust my Mary for that! She's
one as knows her place, and wouldn't consent to nothing of that sort:
but he 'as behaved 'andsome for a disappointed man, and I never will
hear a word against him," Mrs Brown said.
John stood at his window for some time after she had gone, with his
hands in his pockets, whistling loudly. He felt as if he were digging
his heels very deep into the soil to keep himself from doing something
or other which it would not have been very wise to do. The tide was very
strong, and if it once caught him, he did not know what he might do. Nor
did he know what he wanted to do. He was in that state in which Satan
finds some mischief still for every idle hand. He might have been led to
concoct a strike or preach revolution had that stream caught the foot
which he was digging into his carpet: or he might have done—worse. He
might very easily have been plunged into unmentionable things: or he
might have flung himself at the feet of the first pretty barmaid he
encountered, out of spite against this one who had—behaved so very
nicely. It was not a moment to stand and consider, even with the
advantage of digging out two round holes in the carpet. He snatched up
his rag of a gown and his college cap—(I will not pretend that he
usually wore these things out of doors; he did not: and had got into the
hands of proctors, and been disapproved of by Dons in consequence more
times than I can reckon. But when one goes to see the Warden one is
bound to academical costume.) He went there as fast as his feet could
carry him,—to do something quickly and at once was the only salvation
He was received by the Warden with a sort of grim kindness. "I perceive,
Mr Rushton," that dignitary said, "that you have done the work the
College required of you. It is done, but it is not at all well done, I
am sorry to say."
"I know it isn't well done, sir," said John, with a rueful recollection
of how hard it had been to do it at all.
"You have read your books flying—probably not in the vacation at
all—probably since you came up. And you have not understood very well
what you read. The work is done, however, and I'll say no more about how
it was done. Let me ask you, however, Mr Rushton, what you think is the
use of producing such an essay as that?"
"No use at all, sir," cried John. "I thought so all the time: more than
no use. It has only driven me half mad and disgusted you. It is fit for
nothing but to put in the fire. It should never have been written at
"Do you suppose, then, that you come to the University to amuse
yourself, and that no work should be asked from you?"
"I don't amuse myself a bit," cried John. "And if you call that rot (I
beg your pardon, sir) work——Well, yes, I suppose it was work, it was
such a horrible task to me."
"Take care what you are saying, Mr Rushton: it's as easy for me to send
you down, remember, as to throw your essay into the fire."
"I wish you would, sir," cried John; "it would give me an excuse for
going away. It would give me satisfaction to see that rot burning, and
myself too almost, in one way or other. I thought once I'd paint a
little picture and bring you that instead."
"Oh, you can paint pictures?"
"I try," said John. He smiled a little to think that while the Warden
probably expected him to produce a daub like a schoolboy's or
schoolgirl's, there were people quite as good as the Warden in their way
who would have needed no further information than his name as to what he
could do. He who could produce nothing better than that very bad essay;
he——Well, he had heard a picture of his recognised as a "little
Rushton" once, by a man who knew. He laughed in a way which the Warden
did not understand and thought silly, and then he grew grave. "I think,
sir, on the whole," he said, suddenly, "I will take the advice you were
good enough to give me when I first came up."
"And what was that?" said the Warden, with a faint smile. "I believe I
have given you a great deal of good advice."
"It was—to go down," said John; and he felt a little attack of the
wounded vanity which that advice had roused in him as he repeated the
words, notwithstanding that he was making them his own.
"Oh," said the Warden, with a little surprise, "was that my advice?—and
why was it my advice?"
"It was chiefly, I think, because this miserable essay, which you think
disgraceful, and so do I, had not been written—the writing of it has
convinced me of the justice of what you said."
"But not me," said the Warden; "the essay is not very good, certainly"
(he had tacitly allowed it to be "rot," in its author's forcible
language, two minutes before); "still it is a piece of work creditably
gone through with, though against the grain. That does not count in
literature, perhaps, but it does in morals."
"I don't think so," said the audacious John: few were the men who had
dared to say so to the Warden before. "Bad work is bad work, sir, if it
were done with the best motive in the world."
The great man's face wavered a little between wrath and approval. There
was a spark of humour in him. "Thank you," he said, "for the
lesson"—while John's countenance blazed like fire.
"Oh, sir, I hope you don't think——"
"You need not apologise. I thought a week or two ago you had better go
down. I don't think so now. I need not stand upon my consistency. You
had better work out the problem for yourself."
John stood before him doubtfully, shaking his head. "The tides outside
are very strong," he said; "they catch a man's feet——"
"And do you know, my young Daniel," said the Warden, "any place where
the tides outside are not strong?"
All I know is that John Rushton did take his degree—a mere pass, of
course—and I don't know that it was of the least use to him. But he was
very strong in his sense that it was best not to be beaten, whatever the
battle might be.