COLLEGE THEATRICALS

[MAGA. December 1843.]

It wanted but two or three weeks to the Christmas vacation (alas! how many years ago!) and we, the worshipful society of undergraduates of —— College, Oxford, were beginning to get tired of the eternal round of supper-parties which usually marked the close of our winter’s campaign, and ready to hail with delight any proposition that had the charm of novelty. A three weeks’ frost had effectually stopped the hunting; all the best tandem-leaders were completely screwed; the freshmen had been “larked” till they were grown as cunning as magpies; and the Dean had set up a divinity lecture at two o’clock, and published a stringent proclamation against rows in the Quad. It was, in short, during a particularly uninteresting state of things, with the snow falling lazily upon the grey roofs and silent quadrangle, that some half-dozen of us had congregated in Bob Thornhill’s rooms, to get over the time between lunch and dinner with as little trouble to our mental and corporeal faculties as possible. Those among us who had been for the last three months promising to themselves to begin to read “next week,” had now put off that too easy creditor, conscience, till “next term.” One alone had settled his engagements of that nature, or, in the language of his “Testamur”—the prettiest bit of Latin, he declared, that he ever saw—“satisfecit examinatoribus.” Unquestionably, in his case, the examiners must have had the rare virtue of being very easily satisfied. In fact, Mr Savile’s discharge of his educational engagements was rather a sort of “whitewashing” than a payment in full. His passing was what is technically called a “shave,” a metaphor alluding to that intellectual density which finds it difficult to squeeze through the narrow portal which admits to the privileges of a Bachelor of Arts. As Mr S. himself, being a sporting man, described it, it was “a very close run indeed;” not that he considered that circumstance to derogate in any way from his victory; he was rather inclined to consider, that, having shown the field of examiners capital sport, and fairly got away from them in the end without the loss of his brush, his examination had been one of the very best runs of the season. In virtue whereof he was now mounted on the arm of an easy-chair, with a long chibouque, which became the gravity of an incipient bachelor better than a cigar, and took upon himself to give Thornhill (who was really a clever fellow, and professing to be reading for a first) some advice as to his conducting himself when his examination should arrive.

“I’ll tell you what, Thornhill, old boy, I’ll give you a wrinkle; it doesn’t always answer to let out all you know at an examination. That sly old varmint, West of Magdalen, asked me who Hannibal was. ‘Aha!’ said I to myself, ‘that’s your line of country, is it? You want to walk me straight into those botheration Punic Wars; it’s no go, though; I shan’t break cover in that direction.’ So I was mute. ‘Can’t you tell me something about Hannibal?’ says old West again. ‘I can,’ thinks I, ‘but I won’t.’ He was regularly flabergasted; I spoilt his beat entirely, don’t you see? So he looked as black as thunder, and tried it on in a fresh place. If I had been fool enough to let him dodge me in those Punic Wars, I should have been run into in no time. Depend upon it, there’s nothing like a judicious ignorance occasionally.”

“Why,” said Thornhill, “‘when ignorance is bliss’ (that is, when it gets through the schools), ‘’tis folly to be wise.’”

“Ah! that’s Shakespeare says that, isn’t it? I wish one could take up Shakespeare for a class! I’m devilish fond of Shakespeare. We used to act Shakespeare at a private school I was at.”

“By Jove!” said somebody from behind a cloud of smoke—whose the brilliant idea was, was afterwards matter of dispute—“why couldn’t we get up a play?”

“Ah! why not? why not? Capital!”

“It’s such a horrid bore learning one’s part,” lisped the elegant Horace Leicester, half awake on the sofa.

“Oh, stuff!” said Savile, “it’s the very thing to keep us alive! We could make a capital theatre out of the hall; don’t you think the little vice-principal would give us leave?”

“You had better ask for the chapel at once. Why, don’t you know, my dear fellow, the college hall, in the opinion of the dean and the vice, is held rather more sacred of the two? Newcome, poor devil, attempted to cut a joke at the high table one of the times he dined there after he was elected, and he told me that they all stared at him as if he had insulted them; and the vice (in confidence) explained to him that such ‘levity’ was treason against the ‘reverentia loci!’”

“Ay, I remember when that old villain Solomon, the porter, fined me ten shillings for walking in there with spurs one day when I was late for dinner; he said the dean always took off his cap when he went in there by himself, and threatened to turn off old Higgs, when he had been scout forty years, because he heard him whistling one day while he was sweeping it out! Well,” continued Savile, “you shall have my rooms; I shan’t trouble them much now. I am going to pack all my books down to old Wise’s next week, to turn them into ready tin; so you may turn the study into a carpenter’s shop, if you like. Oh, it can be managed famously!”

So, after a few pros and cons, it was finally settled that Mr Savile’s rooms should become the Theatre Royal, —— College; and I was honoured with the responsible office of stage-manager. What the play was to be, was a more difficult point to settle. Savile proposed Romeo and Juliet, and volunteered for the hero; but it passed the united strength of the company to get up a decent Juliet. Richard the Third was suggested; we had “six Richards in the field” at once. We soon gave up the heroics, and decided on comedy; for since our audience would be sure to laugh, we should at least have a chance of getting the laugh in the right place. So, after long discussion, we fixed on She Stoops to Conquer. There were a good many reasons for this selection. First, it was a piece possessing that grand desideratum in all amateur performances, that there were several parts in it of equal calibre, and none which implied decided superiority of talent in its representative; secondly, there was not much love in it—a material point where, as an Irishman might say, all the ladies were gentlemen; thirdly, the scenery, dresses, properties, and decorations, were of the very simplest description: it was easily “put upon the stage.” We found little difficulty in casting the male characters: old Mrs Hardcastle, not requiring any great share of personal attractions, and being considered a part that would tell, soon found a representative; but when we came to the “donnas”—prima and seconda—then it was that the manager’s troubles began. It was really necessary, to insure the most moderate degree of success to the comedy, that Miss Hardcastle should have at least a lady-like deportment. The public voice, first in whispers, then audibly, at last vociferously, called upon Leicester. Slightly formed, handsome, clever, and accomplished, with naturally graceful manners, and a fair share of vanity and affectation, there was no doubt of his making a respectable heroine if he would consent to be made love to. In vain did he protest against the petticoats, and urge with affecting earnestness the claims of the whiskers which for the last six months he had so diligently been cultivating; the chorus of entreaty and expostulation had its effect, aided by a well-timed compliment to the aristocratically small hand and foot, of which Horace was pardonably vain. Shaving was pronounced indispensable to the due growth of the whiskers; and the importance of the character, and the point of the situations, so strongly dwelt upon, that he became gradually reconciled to his fate, and began seriously to discuss the question whether Miss Hardcastle should wear her hair in curls or bands. A freshman of seventeen, who had no pretensions in the way of whiskers, and who was too happy to be admitted on any terms to a share in such a “fast idea” as the getting up a play, was to be the Miss Neville; and before the hall bell rang for dinner, an order had been despatched for a dozen acting copies of She Stoops to Conquer.

Times have materially changed since Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Christ-Church; the University, one of the earliest nurses of the infant drama, has long since turned it out of doors for a naughty child, and forbid it, under pain of worse than whipping, to come any nearer than Abingdon or Bicester. Taking into consideration the style of some of the performances in which undergraduates of some three hundred years ago were the actors, the “Oxford Theatre” of those days, if it had more wit in it than the present, had somewhat less decency. The ancient “moralities” were not over moral, and the “mysteries” rather Babylonish. So far we have had no great loss. Whether the judicious getting up of a tragedy of Sophocles or Æschylus, or even a comedy of Terence—classically managed, as it could be done in Oxford, and well acted—would be more unbecoming the gravity of our collected wisdom, or more derogatory to the dignity of our noble “theatre,” than the squalling of Italian singers, masculine, feminine, and neuter, is a question which, when I have a seat in the Hebdomadal Council, I shall certainly propose. Thus much I am sure of,—if a classical playbill were duly announced for the next grand commemoration, it would “draw” almost as well as any lion of the day: the dresses might be quite as showy, the action could hardly be less graceful, than those of the odd-looking gentlemen who are dubbed doctors of civil law on such occasions; and the speeches of Prometheus, Œdipus, or Antigone, would be more intelligible to the learned, and more amusing to the ladies, than those Latin essays or the Creweian oration.

However, until I am vice-chancellor, the legitimate drama, Greek, Roman, or English, seems little likely to revive in Oxford. Our branch of that great family, I confess, bore the bar-sinister. The offspring of our theatrical affections was unrecognised by college authority. The fellows of —— would have done anything but “smile upon its birth.” The dean especially would have burked it at once had he suspected its existence. Nor was it fostered, like the former Oxford theatricals to which we have alluded, by royal patronage; we could not, consistently with decorum, request her Majesty to encourage an illegitimate. Nevertheless—spite of its being thus born under the rose, it grew and prospered. Our plan of rehearsal was original. We used to adjourn from dinner to the rooms of one or other of the company; and there, over our wine and dessert, instead of quizzing freshmen and abusing tutors, open each our acting copy, and, with all due emphasis and intonation, go regularly through the scenes of She Stoops to Conquer. This was all the study we ever gave to our parts; and even thus it was difficult to get a muster of all the performers, and we had generally to play dummy for some one or more of the characters, or “double” them, as the professionals call it. The excuses for absenteeism were various. Mrs Hardcastle and Tony were gone to Woodstock with a team, and were not to be waited for; Diggory had a command to dine with the Principal; and once an interesting dialogue was cut short by the untoward event of Miss Neville’s being “confined”—in consequence of some indiscretion or other—“to chapel.” It was necessary in our management, as much as in Mr Bunn’s or Mr Macready’s, to humour the caprices of the stars of the company; but the lesser lights, if they became eccentric at all in their orbits, were extinguished without mercy. Their place was easily supplied; for the moment it became known that a play was in contemplation, there were plenty of candidates for dramatic fame, especially among the freshmen; and though we mortally offended one or two aspiring geniuses, by proffering them the vacant situations of Ralph, Roger, and Co., in Mr Hardcastle’s household, on condition of having their respective blue dress-coats turned up with yellow to represent the family livery, there were others to whom the being admitted behind the scenes, even in these humble characters, was a subject of laudable ambition. Nay, unimportant as were some parts in themselves, they were quite enough for the histrionic talent of some of our friends. Till I became a manager myself, I always used to lose patience at the wretched manner in which some of the underlings on the stage went through the little they had to say and do: there seemed no reason why the “sticks” should be so provokingly sticky; and it surprised me that a man who could accost one fluently enough at the stage-door, should make such a bungle as some of them did in a message of some half-dozen words “in character.” But when I first became initiated into the mysteries of amateur performances, and saw how entirely destitute some men were of any notion of natural acting, and how they made a point of repeating two lines of familiar dialogue with the tone and manner, but without the correctness, of a schoolboy going through a task—then it ceased to be any matter of wonder that those to whom acting was no joke, but an unhappily earnest mode of getting bread, should so often make their performance appear the uneasy effort which it is. There was one man in particular, a good-humoured, gentlemanly fellow, a favourite with us all,—not remarkable for talent, but a pleasant companion enough, with plenty of common-sense. Well, “he would be an actor”—it was his own fancy to have a part, and, as he was “one of us,” we could not well refuse him. We give him an easy one, for he was not vain of his own powers, or ambitious of theatrical distinction; so he was to be “second fellow”—one of Tony’s pot-companions. He had but two lines to speak; but from the very first time I heard him read them, I set him down as a hopeless case. He read them as if he had just learned to spell the words; when he repeated them without the book, it was like a clergyman giving out a text. And so it was with a good many of the rank and file of the company; we had more labour to drill them into something like a natural intonation than to learn our own longest speeches twice over. So we made their attendance at rehearsals a sine qua non. We dismissed a promising “Mat Muggins” because he went to the “Union” two nights successively, when he ought to have been at “The Three Pigeons.” We superseded a very respectable “landlord” (though he had actually been measured for a corporation and a pair of calves) for inattention to business. The only one of the supernumeraries whom it was at all necessary to conciliate, was the gentleman who was to sing the comic song instead of Tony (Savile, the representative of the said Tony, not having music in his soul beyond a view-holloa). He was allowed to go and come at our readings ad libitum, upon condition of being very careful not to take cold.

When we had become tolerably perfect in the words of our parts, it was deemed expedient to have a “dress rehearsal”—especially for the ladies. It is not very easy to move safely—let alone gracefully—in petticoats, for those who are accustomed to move their legs somewhat more independently. And it would not have been civil in Messrs Marlow and Hastings to laugh outright at their lady-loves before company, as they were sure to do upon their first appearance. A dress rehearsal, therefore, was a very necessary precaution. But if it was difficult to get the company together at six o’clock under the friendly disguise of a wine-party, doubly difficult was it to expect them to muster at eleven in the morning. The first day that we fixed for it, there came a not very lady-like note, evidently written in bed, from Miss Hardcastle, stating, that having been at a supper-party the night before, and there partaken of brandy-punch to an extent to which she was wholly unaccustomed, it was quite impossible, in the present state of her nervous system, for her to make her appearance in character at any price. There was no alternative but to put off the rehearsal; and that very week occurred a circumstance which was very near being the cause of its adjournment sine die.

“Mr Hawthorne,” said the dean to me one morning, when I was leaving his rooms, rejoicing in the termination of lecture, “I wish to speak with you, if you please.” The dean’s communications were seldom of a very pleasing kind, and on this particular morning his countenance gave token that he had hit upon something more than usually piquant. The rest of the men filed out of the door as slowly as they conveniently could, in the hope, I suppose, of hearing the dean’s fire open upon me; but he waited patiently till my particular friend, Bob Thornhill, had picked up carefully, one by one, his miscellaneous collection of note-book, pencil, pen-knife, and other small wares, and had been obliged at length to make an unwilling exit; when, seeing the door finally closed, he commenced with his usual—“Have the goodness to sit down, sir.”

Experience had taught me, that it was as well to make one’s-self as comfortable as might be upon these occasions; so I took the easy-chair, and tried to look as if I thought the dean merely wanted to have a pleasant half-hour’s chat. He marched into a little back-room that he called his study, and I began to speculate upon the probable subject of our conference. Strange! that week had been a more than usually quiet one. No late knocking in; no cutting lectures at chapel; positively I began to think that, for once, the dean had gone on a wrong scent, and that I should repel his accusations with all the dignity of injured innocence; or had he sent for me to offer his congratulations on my having commenced in the “steady” line, and to ask me to breakfast? I was not long left to indulge such delusive hopes. Re-enter the dean (O.P., as our stage directions would have had it), with—a pair of stays!

By what confounded ill-luck they had got into his possession I could not imagine; but there they were. The dean touched them as if he felt their very touch an abomination, threw them on the table, and briefly said—“These, sir, were found in your rooms this morning. Can you explain how they came there?”

True enough, Leicester had been trying on the abominable articles in my bedroom, and I had stuffed them into a drawer till wanted. What to say was indeed a puzzle. To tell the whole truth would no doubt have ended the matter at once, and a hearty laugh should I have had at the dean’s expense; but it would have put the stopper on She Stoops to Conquer. It was too ridiculous to look grave about; and blacker grew the countenance before me, as, with a vain attempt to conceal a smile, I echoed his words, and stammered out—“In my rooms, sir?”

“Yes, sir, in your bedroom.” He rang the bell. “Your servant, Simmons, most properly brought them to me.”

The little rascal! I had been afraid to let him know anything about the theatricals; for I knew perfectly well the dean would hear of it in half an hour, for he served him in the double capacity of scout and spy. Before the bell had stopped, Dick Simmons made his appearance, having evidently been kept at hand. He did look rather ashamed of himself, when I asked him, what business he had to search my wardrobe?

“Oh dear, sir! I never did no sich a thing; I was a-making of your bed, sir, when I sees the tag of a stay-lace hanging out of your topmost drawer, sir—(I am a married man, sir,” to the dean apologetically, “and I know the tag of a stay-lace, sir)—and so I took it out, sir; and knowing my duty to the college, sir, though I should be very sorry to bring you into trouble, Mr Hawthorne, sir”——

“Yes, yes, Simmons, you did quite right,” said the dean. “You are bound to give notice to the college authorities of all irregularities, and your situation requires that you should be conscientious.”

“I hope I am, sir,” said the little rascal; “but indeed I am very sorry, Mr Hawthorne, sir”——

“Oh! never mind,” said I; “you did right, no doubt. I can only say those things are not mine, sir; they belong to a friend of mine.”

“I don’t ask who they belong to, sir,” said the dean indignantly; “I ask, sir, how came they in your rooms?”

“I believe, sir, my friend (he was in my rooms yesterday) left them there. Some men wear stays, sir,” continued I, boldly; “it’s very much the fashion, I’m told.”

“Eh! hum!” said the dean, eyeing the brown jean doubtingly. “I have heard of such things. Horrid puppies men are now. Never dreamt of such things in my younger days; but then, sir, we were not allowed to wear white trousers, and waistcoats of I don’t know what colours; we were made to attend to the statutes—‘Nigri aut subfusci,’ sir. Ah! times are changed—times are changed, indeed! And do you mean to say, sir, you have a friend, a member of this university, who wears such things as these?”

I might have got clear off, if it had not been for that rascal Simmons. I saw him give the dean a look, and an almost imperceptible shake of the head.

“But I don’t think, sir,” resumed he, “these can be a man’s stays—eh, Simmons?” Simmons looked diligently at his toes. “No,” said the dean, investigating the unhappy garment more closely—“no; I fear, Simmons, these are female stays!”

The conscientious Simmons made no sign.

“I don’t know, sir,” said I, as he looked from Simmons to me. “I don’t wear stays, and I know nothing about them. If Simmons were to fetch a pair of Mrs Simmons’s, sir,” resumed I, “you could compare them.”

Mrs Simmons’s figure resembled a sack of flour, with a string round it; and if she did wear the articles in question, they must have been of a pattern almost unique—made to order.

“Sir,” said the dean, “your flippancy is unbecoming. I shall not pursue this investigation any further; but I am bound to tell you, sir, this circumstance is suspicious—very suspicious.” I could not resist a smile for the life of me. “And doubly suspicious, sir, in your case. The eyes of the college are upon you, sir.” He was evidently losing his temper, so I bowed profoundly, and he grew more irate. “Ever since, sir, that atrocious business of the frogs, though the college authorities failed in discovering the guilty parties, there are some individuals, sir, whose conduct is watched attentively. Good morning, sir.”

The “business of the frogs,” to which the dean so rancorously alluded, had, indeed, caused some consternation to the fellows of ——. There had been a marvellous story going the round of the papers, of a shower of the inelegant reptiles in question having fallen in some part of the kingdom. Old women were muttering prophecies, and wise men acknowledged themselves puzzled. The Ashmolean Society had sat in conclave upon it, and accounted so satisfactorily for the occurrence, that the only wonder seemed to be that we had not a shower of frogs, or some equally agreeable visitors, every rainy morning. Now, every one who has strolled round Christ-Church meadows on a warm evening, especially after rain, must have been greeted at intervals by a whole gamut of croaks; and if he had the curiosity to peer into the green ditches as he passed along, he might catch a glimpse of the heads of the performers. Well, the joint reflections of myself and an ingenious friend, who were studying this branch of zoology while waiting for the coming up of the boats one night, tended to the conclusion, that a very successful imitation of the late “Extraordinary Phenomenon” might be got up for the edification of the scientific in our own college. Animals of all kinds find dealers and purchasers in Oxford. Curs of lowest degree have their prices. Rats, being necessary in the education of terriers, come rather expensive. A polecat—even with three legs only—will command a fancy price. Sparrows, larks, and other small birds, are retailed by the dozen on Cowley Marsh to gentlemen undergraduates who are aspiring to the pigeon-trap. But as yet there had been no demand for frogs, and there was quite a glut of them in the market. They were cheap accordingly; for a shilling a-hundred we found that we might inflict the second plague of Egypt upon the whole university. The next evening, two hampers, containing, as our purveyor assured us, “very prime ’uns,” arrived at my rooms “from Mr S——, the wine merchant;” and by daylight on the following morning were judiciously distributed throughout all the comeatable premises within the college walls. When I awoke the next morning, I heard voices in earnest conversation under my window, and looked out with no little curiosity. The frogs had evidently produced a sensation. The bursar, disturbed apparently from his early breakfast, stood robed in an ancient dressing-gown, with the Times in his hand, on which he was balancing a frog as yellow as himself. The dean, in cap and surplice, on his way from chapel, was eagerly listening to the account which one of the scouts was giving him of the first discovery of the intruders.

“Me and my missis, sir,” quoth John, “was a-coming into college when it was hardly to say daylight, when she, as I reckon, sets foot upon one of ’em, and was like to have been back’ards with a set of breakfast chiney, as she was a-bringing in for one of the fresh gentlemen. She scritches out, in course, and I looks down, and then I sees two or three a-’oppin about; but I didn’t take much notice till I gets to the thoroughfare, when there was a whole row on ’em a-trying to climb up the bottom step; and then I calls Solomon the porter, and”——

Here I left my window, and, making a hasty toilet, joined a group of undergraduates, who were now collecting round the dean and bursar. I cast my eyes round the quadrangle, and was delighted with the success of our labours. There had been a heavy shower in the night, and the frogs were as lively as they could be on so ungenial a location as a gravelled court. In every corner was a goodly cluster, who were making ladders of each other’s backs, as if determined to scale the college walls. Some, of more retiring disposition, were endeavouring to force themselves into crevices, and hiding their heads behind projections to escape the gaze of academic eyes; while a few active spirits seemed to be hopping a sweepstakes right for the common-room door. Just as I made my appearance, the Principal came out of the door of his lodgings, with another of the fellows, having evidently been summoned to assist at the consultation. Good old soul! his study of zoology had been chiefly confined to the class edibles, and a shower of frogs, authenticated upon the oaths of the whole Convocation, would not have been half so interesting to him as an importation of turtle. However, to do him justice, he put on his spectacles, and looked as scientific as anybody. After due examination of the specimen of the genus Rana which the bursar still held in captivity, and pronouncing a unanimous opinion, that, come from where he would, he was a bona fide frog, with nothing supernatural about him, the conclave proceeded round the quadrangle, calculating the numbers, and conjecturing the probable origin of these strange visitors. Equally curious, if not equally scientific, were the undergraduates who followed them; for, having strictly kept our own secret, my friend and myself were the only parties who could solve the mystery; and though many suspected that the frogs were unwilling emigrants, none knew to whom they were indebted for their introduction to college. The collected wisdom of the dons soon decided that a shower of full-grown frogs was a novelty even in the extraordinary occurrences of newspapers; and as not even a single individual croaker was to be discovered outside the walls of ——, it became evident that the whole affair was, as the dean described it, “another of those outrages upon academic discipline, which were as senseless as they were disgraceful.”

I daresay the dean’s anathema was “as sensible as it was sincere;” but it did not prevent our thoroughly enjoying the success of the “outrage” at the time; nor does it, unfortunately, suffice at this present moment to check something like an inward chuckle, when I think of the trouble which it cost the various retainers of the college to clear it effectually of its strange visitors. Hopkins, the old butler, who was of rather an imaginative temperament, and had a marvellous tale to tell any one who would listen, of a departed bursar, who, having caught his death of cold by superintending the laying down of three pipes of port, might ever afterwards be heard, upon such interesting occasions, walking about the damp cellars after nightfall in pattens,—Hopkins, the oracle of the college “tap,” maintained that the frogs were something “off the common;” and strengthened his opinion by reference to a specimen which he had selected—a lank, black, skinny individual, which really looked ugly enough to have come from anywhere. Scouts, wives, and children (they always make a point of having large families, in order to eat up the spare commons), all were busy, through that eventful day, in a novel occupation, and by dinner-time not a frog was to be seen; but long, long afterwards, on a moist evening, fugitives from the general proscription might be seen making their silent way across the quadrangle, and croakings were heard at night-time, which might (as Homer relates of his frogs) have disturbed Minerva, only that the goddess of wisdom, in chambers collegiate, sleeps usually pretty sound.

The “business of the stays,” however, bid fair to supersede the business of the frogs, in the dean’s record of my supposed crimes; and as I fully intended to clear myself, even to his satisfaction, of any suspicion which might attach to me from the possession of such questionable articles so soon as our theatre closed for the season, I resolved that my successful defence from this last imputation would be an admirable ground on which to assume the dignity of a martyr, to appeal against all uncharitable conclusions from insufficient premises, and come out as the personification of injured innocence throughout my whole college career.

When my interview with the dean was over, I ordered some luncheon up to Leicester’s rooms, where, as I expected, I found most of my own “set” collected, in order to hear the result. A private conference with the official aforesaid seldom boded good to the party so favoured; the dean seldom made his communications so agreeable as he might have done. In college, as in most other societies, La Rochefoucauld’s maxim holds good, that “there is always something pleasant in the misfortunes of one’s friends;” and whenever an unlucky wight did get into a row, he might pretty confidently reckon upon being laughed at. In fact, undergraduates considered themselves as engaged in a war of stratagem against an unholy alliance of deans, tutors, and proctors; and in every encounter the defeated party was looked upon as the deluded victim of superior ingenuity—as having been “done,” in short. So, if a lark succeeded, the authorities aforesaid were decidedly done, and laughed at accordingly; if it failed, why, the other party were done, and there was still somebody to laugh at. No doubt, the jest was richer in the first case supposed; but in the second there was the additional gusto, so dear to human philanthropy, of having the victim present, and enjoying his discomfiture, which, in the case of the dons being the sufferers, was denied us. It may seem to argue something of a want of sympathy to find amusement in misfortunes which might any day be our own; but any one who ever witnessed the air of ludicrous alarm with which an undergraduate prepares to obey the summons (capable of but one interpretation)—“The dean wishes to see you, sir, at ten o’clock”—which so often, in my time at least, was sent as a whet to some of the assembled guests at a breakfast-party; whoever has been applied to on such occasions for the loan of a tolerable cap (that of the delinquent having its corners in such dilapidated condition as to proclaim its owner a “rowing man” at once), or has responded to the pathetic appeal, “Do I look very seedy?”—any one to whom such absurd recollections of early days occur (and if you, good reader, are a university man, as, being a gentleman, I am bound in charity to conclude you are, and yet have no such reminiscences, allow me to suggest that you must have been a very slow coach indeed)—any one, I say once more, who knows the ridiculous figure which a man cuts when “hauled up” before the college Minos or Radamanthus, will easily forgive his friends for being inclined to laugh at him.

However, in the present case, any anticipations of fun at my expense, which the party in Leicester’s rooms might charitably entertain, were somewhat qualified by the fear that the consequences of any little private difference between the dean and myself might affect the prosperity of our unlicensed theatre. And when they heard how very nearly the discovery of the stays had been fatal to our project, execrations against Simmons’s espionage were mingled with admiration of my escape from so critical a position.

The following is, I apprehend, a unique specimen of an Oxford bill, and the only one, out of a tolerably large bundle which I keep for the sake of the receipts attached (a precaution by no means uncalled for), which I find any amusement in referring to:—

—— Hawthorne, Esq.,
To M. Moore. s. d.
2 pr. brown jean corsets. 8 2
Padding for do., made to order. 2 6
 
  10 6
Recd. same day, M. M.  

Very much surprised was the old lady, of whom I made the purchase in my capacity of stage-manager, at so uncommon a customer in her line of business; and when, after enjoying her mystification for some time, I let her into the secret, so delighted was she at the notion, that she gave me sundry hints as to the management of the female toilet, and offered to get made up for me any dresses that might be required. So I introduced Leicester and his fellow-heroines to my friend Mrs Moore, and, by the joint exertions of their own tastes and her experience, they became possessed of some very tolerable costumes. There was a good deal of fun going on, I fancy, in fitting and measuring, in her back parlour; for there was a daughter, or a niece, or something of the sort, who cut out the dresses with the prettiest hands in the world, as Leicester declared; but I was too busy with carpenters, painters, and other assistants, to pay more than a flying visit to the ladies’ department.

At last the rehearsal did come on. As Hastings, I had not much in the way of dress to alter; and, having some engagement in the early part of the morning, I did not arrive at the theatre until the rest of the characters were already dressed and ready to begin. Though I had been consulted upon all manner of points, from the arranging of a curl for Miss Neville to the colour of Diggory’s stockings, and knew the costume of every individual as well as my own, yet so ludicrous was the effect of the whole when I entered the room, that I threw myself into the nearest chair, and laughed myself nearly into convulsions. The figure which first met my eyes was a little ruddy freshman, who had the part of the landlord, and who, in his zeal to do honour to our preference, had dressed the character most elaborately. A pillow, which he could scarcely see over, puffed out his red waistcoat; and his hair was cut short, and powdered with such good-will that for weeks afterwards, in spite of diligent brushing, he looked as grey as the Principal. There he stood, his legs clothed in grey worsted, retreating far beyond his little white apron, as if ashamed of their unusual appearance—

“The mother that him bare,
She had not known her son.”

Every one, however, had not been so classical in their costume. There was Sir Charles Marlow in what had been a judge’s wig, and Mr Hardcastle in a barrister’s; both sufficiently unlike themselves, at any rate, if not very correct copies of their originals. Then the women! As for Mrs Hardcastle, she was perfection. There never was, I believe, a better representation of the character. It was well dressed, and turned out a first-rate bit of acting—very far superior to any amateur performance I ever saw, and, with practice, would have equalled that of any actress on the stage. Her very curtsy was comedy itself. When I recovered my breath a little, I was able to attend to the dialogue which was going on, which was hardly less ridiculous than the strange disguises round me. “Now, Miss Hardcastle” (Marlow loquitur), “I have no objection to your smoking cigars during rehearsal, of course—because you won’t do that on Monday night, I suppose; but I must beg you to get out of the practice of standing or sitting cross-legged, because it’s not lady-like, or even bar-maid like—and don’t laugh when I make love to you; for if you do, I shall break down to a certainty.” “Thornhill, do you think my waist will do?” said the anxious representative of the fair Constance. “I have worn these cursed stays for an hour every evening for the last week, and drawn them an inch tighter every time; but I don’t think I’m a very good figure after all—just try if they’ll come any closer, will you?” “Oh! Hawthorne, I’m glad you are come,” said Savile, whom I hardly knew, in a red wig; “now, isn’t there to be a bowl of real punch in the scene at the Three Pigeons—one can’t pretend to drink, you know, with any degree of spirit?”—“Oh! of course,” said I; “that’s one of the landlord’s properties; Miller, you must provide that, you know: send down for some cold tankards now; they will do very well for rehearsal.” At last we got to work, and proceeded, with the prompter’s assistance, pretty smoothly, and mutually applauding each other’s performance, going twice over some of the most difficult scenes, and cutting out a good deal of love and sentiment. The play was fixed for the next Monday night, playbills ordered to be printed, and cards of invitation issued to all the performers’ intimate friends. Every scout in the college, I believe, except my rascal Simmons, was in the secret, and probably some of the fellows had a shrewd guess at what was going on; but no one interfered with us. We carried on all our operations as quietly as possible; and the only circumstance likely to arouse suspicion in the minds of the authorities, was the unusual absence of all disturbances of a minor nature within the walls, in consequence of the one engrossing freak in which most of the more turbulent spirits were engaged.

At length the grand night arrived. By nine o’clock the theatre in Savile’s rooms was as full as it could be crammed with any degree of comfort to actors and audience; and in the study and bedroom, which, being on opposite sides, served admirably for dressing-rooms behind the scenes, the usual bustle of preparation was going on. As is common in such cases, some essential properties had been forgotten until the last moment. No bonnet had been provided for Mrs Hardcastle to take her walks abroad in; and when the little hair-dresser, who had been retained to give a finishing touch to some of the coiffures, returned with one belonging to his “missis,” which he had volunteered to lend, the roar of uncontrollable merriment which this new embellishment of our disguised friend called forth, made the audience clamorous for the rising of the curtain—thinking, very excusably, that it was quite unjustifiable to keep all the fun to ourselves.

After some little trial of our “public’s” patience, the play began in good earnest, and was most favourably received. Indeed, as the only price of admission exacted was a promise of civil behaviour, and there were two servants busily employed in handing about punch and “bishop,” it would have been rather hard if we did not succeed in propitiating their good-humour. With the exception of two gentlemen who had been dining out, and were rather noisy in consequence, and evinced a strong inclination occasionally to take a part in the dialogue, all behaved wonderfully well, greeting each performer, as he made his first entrance, with a due amount of cheering; rapturously applauding all the best scenes; laughing (whether at the raciness of the acting, or the grotesque metamorphoses of the actors, made no great difference), and filling up any gap which occurred in the proceedings on the stage, in spite of the prompter, with vociferous encouragement to the “sticket” actor. With an audience so disposed, each successive scene went off better and better. One deserves to be particularised. It was the second in the first act of the comedy; the stage directions for it are as follows: “Scene—An alehouse room—Several shabby fellows with punch and tobacco; Tony at the head of the table, &c., discovered.” Never, perhaps, in any previous representation, was the mise en scène so perfect; it drew three rounds of applause. A very equivocal compliment to ourselves it may be; but such jolly-looking “shabby fellows” as sat round the table at which our Tony presided, were never furnished by the supernumeraries of Drury or Covent Garden. They were as classical, in their way, as Macready’s Roman mob. Then there was no make-believe puffing of empty pipes, and fictitious drinking of small-beer for punch; every nose among the audience could appreciate the genuineness of both liquor and tobacco; and the hearty encore which the song, with its stentorian chorus, was honoured with, gave all the parties engaged time to enjoy their punch and their pipes to their satisfaction. It was quite a pity, as was unanimously agreed, when the entrance of Marlow and Hastings, as in duty bound, interrupted so jovial a society. But “all that’s bright must fade”—and so the Three Pigeons’ scene, and the play too, came to an end in due course. The curtain fell amidst universal applause, modified only by the urgent request, which, as manager, I had more than once to repeat, that gentlemen would be kind enough to restrain their feelings for fear of disturbing the dons. The house resolved itself into its component elements—all went their ways,—the reading men probably to a Greek play, by way of afterpiece; sleepy ones to bed, and idle ones to their various inventions; and the actors, after the fatigues of the night, to a supper, which was to be the “finish.” It was to take place in one of the men’s rooms which happened to be on the same staircase, and had been committed to the charge of certain parties, who understood our notions of an unexceptionable spread. And a right merry party we were, all sitting down in character—Mrs Hardcastle at the top of the table, her worthy partner at bottom, with the “young ladies” on each side. It was the best tableau of the evening; pity there was neither artist to sketch, nor spectators to admire it! But, like many other merry meetings, there are faithful portraits of it—proof impressions—in the memories of many who were present, not yet obliterated, hardly even dimmed, by time; laid by, like other valuables, which, in the turmoil of life, we find no time to look at, but not thrown aside or forgotten, and brought out sometimes, in holidays and quiet hours, for us to look at once more, and enjoy their beauty, and feel, after all, how much what we have changed is “cœlum non animum.” I am now—no matter what. Of my companions at that well-remembered supper, one is a staid and orthodox divine; one a rising barrister; a third a respectable country gentleman, justice of the peace, “and quorum;” a fourth, they tell me, a semi-Papist: but set us all down together in that same room, draw the champagne corks, and let some Lethe (the said champagne, if you please) wash out all that has passed over us in the last few years, and my word on it, three out of four of us are but boys still; and though much shaving, pearl powder, and carmine, might fail to make of any of the party a heroine of any more delicate class than Meg Merrilies, I have no doubt we could all of us once more smoke a pipe in character at “The Three Pigeons.”

Merrily the evening passed off, and merrily the little hours came on, and song and laugh rather grew gayer than slackened. The strings of the stays had long ago been cut, and the tresses, which were in the way of the cigars, were thrown back in dishevelled elegance. The landlord found his stuffing somewhat warm, and had laid aside half his fleshy encumbrance. Every one was at his ease, and a most uproarious chorus had just been sung by the whole strength of the company, when we heard the ominous sound of a quiet double-rap at the outer door.

“Who’s there?” said one of the most self-possessed of the company.

“I wish to speak to Mr Challoner,” was the quiet reply.

The owner of the rooms was luckily in no more outré costume than that of Sir Charles Marlow; and having thrown off his wig, and buttoned his coat over a deep-flapped waistcoat, looked tolerably like himself as he proceeded to answer the summons. I confess I rather hoped than otherwise that the gentleman, whoever he was, would walk in, when, if he intended to astonish us, he was very likely to find the tables turned. However, even college dons recognise the principle that every man’s house is his castle, and never violate the sanctity of even an undergraduate’s rooms. The object of this present visit, however, was rather friendly than otherwise. One of the fellows, deservedly popular, had been with the dean, and had left him in a state of some excitement from the increasing merriment which came somewhat too audibly across the quadrangle from our party. He had called, therefore, to advise Challoner either to keep his friends quiet, or to get rid of them, if he wished to keep out of the dean’s jurisdiction. As it was towards three in the morning, we thought it prudent to take this advice as it was meant, and in a few minutes began to wend our respective ways homewards. Leicester and myself, whose rooms lay in the same direction, were steering along, very soberly, under a bright moonlight, when something put it into the heads of some other stragglers of the party to break out, at the top of their voices, into a stanza of that immortal ditty, “We won’t go home till morning.” Instantly we could hear a window, which we well knew to be the dean’s, open above us, and as the unmelodious chorus went on, his wrath found vent in the usual strain—“Who is making that disturbance?”

No one volunteering an explanation, he went on.

“Who are those in the quadrangle?”

Leicester and I walked somewhat faster. I am not sure that our dignity did not condescend to run, as we heard steps coming down from No. 5, at a pace that evidently portended a chase, and remembered for the first time the remarkable costume which, to common observers, would indicate that there was a visitor of an unusual character enjoying the moonlight in the quadrangle. When we reached the “thoroughfare,” the passage from the inner to the outer quadrangle, we fairly bolted; and as the steps came pretty fast after us, and Leicester’s rooms were the nearest, we both made good our retreat thither, and sported oak.

The porter’s lodge was in the next number; and hearing a knocking in that quarter, Leicester gently opened the window, and we could catch the following dialogue:—

“Solomon! open this door directly—it is I, the dean.”

“Good dear sir!” said Solomon, apparently asleep, and fumbling for the keys of the college gates—“let you out? O yes, sir—directly.”

“Listen to me, Solomon: I am not going out. Did you let any one out just now—just before I called you?”

“No, sir; nobody whatsomdever.”

“Solomon! I ask you, did you not, just now, let a woman out?”

“Lawk! no, sir—Lord forbid!” said Solomon, now thoroughly wakened.

“Now, Solomon, bring your light, and come with me; this must be inquired into. I saw a woman run this way, and if she is not gone through the gate, she is gone into this next number. Whose rooms are in No. 13?”

“There’s Mr Dyson’s, sir, on the ground-floor.”

Mr Dyson was the very fellow who had called at Challoner’s rooms. “Hah! well, I’ll call Mr Dyson up. Whose besides?”

“There’s Mr Leicester, sir, above his’n.”

“Very well, Solomon; call up Mr Dyson, and say I wish to speak with him particularly.”

And so saying, the dean proceeded up-stairs.

The moment Leicester heard his name mentioned, he began to anticipate a domiciliary visit. The thing was so ridiculous that we hardly knew what to do.

“Shall I get into bed, Hawthorne? I don’t want to be caught in this figure.”

“Why, I don’t know that you will be safe there, in the present state of the dean’s suspicions. No; tuck up those confounded petticoats, clap on your pea-jacket, twist those love-locks up under your cap, light this cigar, and sit in your easy-chair. The dean must be ’cuter than usual if he finds you out as the lady he is in search of.”

Leicester had hardly time to take this advice—the best I could hit upon at the moment—when the dean knocked at the door.

“Who are you? Come in,” said we both in a breath.

“I beg your pardon, Mr Leicester,” said the dean in his most official tone; “nothing but actually imperative duty occasions my intrusion at this unseasonable hour, but a most extraordinary circumstance must be my excuse. I saw, gentlemen—I saw with my own eyes,” he continued, looking blacker as he caught sight of me, and remembering, no doubt, the little episode of the stays—“I saw a female figure move in this direction but a few minutes ago. No such person has passed the gate, for I have made inquiry; certainly I have no reason to suppose any such person is concealed here; but I am bound to ask you, sir, on your honour as a gentleman—for I have no wish to make a search—is there any such person concealed in your apartments?”

“On my honour, sir, no one is or has been lately here, but myself and Mr Hawthorne.”

Here Dyson came into the room, looking considerably mystified.

“What’s the matter, Mr Dean?” said he, nodding good-humouredly to us.

“A most unpleasant occurrence, my dear sir; I have seen a woman in this direction not five minutes back. Unfortunately, I cannot be mistaken. She either passed into the porter’s lodge or into this staircase.”

“She is not in my rooms, I assure you,” said he, laughing; “I should think you made a mistake: it must have been some man in a white mackintosh.”

I smiled, and Leicester laughed outright.

“I am not mistaken, sir,” said the dean warmly. “I shall take your word, Mr Leicester; but allow me to tell you, that your conduct in lolling in that chair, as if in perfect contempt, and neither rising, nor removing your cap, when Mr Dyson and myself are in your rooms, is consistent neither with the respect due from an undergraduate, nor the behaviour I should expect from a gentleman.”

Poor Leicester coloured, and unwittingly removed his cap. The chestnut curls, some natural and some artificial, which had been so studiously arranged for Miss Hardcastle’s head-dress, fell in dishevelled luxuriance round his face; and as he half rose from his previous position in the chair, a pink-silk dress began to descend from under the pea-jacket. Concealment was at an end; the dean looked bewildered at first, and then savage; but a hearty laugh from Dyson settled the business.

“What, Leicester! you’re the lady the dean has been hunting about college! Upon my word, this is the most absurd piece of masquerading!—what on earth is it all about?”

I pitied Leicester, he looked such an extraordinary figure in his ambiguous dress, and seemed so thoroughly ashamed of himself; so, displaying the tops and cords in which I had enacted Hastings, I acknowledged my share in the business, and gave a brief history of the drama during my management. The dean endeavoured to look grave: Dyson gave way to undisguised amusement, and repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh! why did you not send me a ticket? When do you perform again?”

Alas! never. Brief, as bright, was our theatrical career. But the memory of it lives in the college still—of the comedy, and the supper, and the curious mistake which followed it; and the dean has not to this hour lost the credit which he then gained, of having a remarkably keen eye for a petticoat.