The Sub-Warden

by Logan Pearsall Smith

The two old gentlemen walked out of the Common Room, across the quadrangle to the porter's lodge: the Vicar of North Mims, who had been spending a few hours in Oxford and dining in College, wanted to catch the evening train back to North Mims, the College living he had held for the last ten years, and the Sub-Warden wanted to see the last of him.

"The point I make is this," the old Vicar said again, frowning with his bushy eyebrows in the moonlight; "the point I make is this: There would be no trouble at all, if it wasn't for the drinking. If they want meetings, let them have Temperance meetings; and I say that those Socialist fellows from London have absolutely no business meddling in the affairs of my parish. And as for the undergraduates who come out from Oxford to speak"—the Vicar's voice grew more solemnly irate—"as for those undergraduates, they should be punished. It is, I consider, a case in which both college and university authorities should intervene with prompt severity."

They walked on for a little in silence, and then the Sub-Warden said, as he looked at his companion, "Really, Philpotts, you know, you ought to tricycle."

The truth is, that, as they had sat in the Common Room over their port, the Rev. Mr. Philpotts had repeated himself a great many times; and, the Sub-Warden's mind at last beginning to wander, he had said to himself, as he looked at his glass and then at his old friend, "Really, Philpotts is getting very heavy! I used to be heavier, and probably should be now, if it wasn't for tricycling!" And, his mind being full of the thought, he had suddenly said, "Really, Philpotts, you know, you ought to tricycle!"

"What!" said the Vicar, in a voice of slow amazement. "What on earth has tricycling got to do with it?"

"Oh, I beg your pardon!" the Sub-Warden cried, who was the soul of good-nature, "I am so absent-minded. You were speaking of the Radicals; it is certainly shocking."

"Radicals! Pestilent Socialists I call them," and the Vicar's mind, after its jolt, got back into the old groove. "Why, you would hardly believe it, but they had the impertinence to advertise some young ninny as a member of this College, and they actually posted it on the vicarage gate. My wife had to soak it off with a sponge. Now, what I say is—"

But they had arrived in the porch, and the Sub-Warden, telling the Vicar it was late, hurried him out of College, and then turned and walked back to his rooms.

"He certainly is getting heavy," he said to himself. "He has changed very much. These country livings! And if I had only started to ride a little earlier this afternoon, he wouldn't have caught me. Another time when I miss my exercise I mustn't drink port! At my age one begins to feel it."

The Sub-Warden reached his staircase, and, resting one hand on the wall of the building, he turned and looked at the moon. Then he went upstairs, but, instead of sitting down at his table, he went to the window and opened the sash. There was a curious look about the trees and buildings, as if they had been turning round, and had just stopped. It was odd. Poor old Philpotts! What an undergraduate he had been—up to anything! What times they had had! And now he was on his way back to his wife at North Mims! The Sub-Warden sighed; then smiled, and, straightening himself, after a moment's hesitation, he went and put on an old coat, and stole with soft steps out of the College. Perhaps it was the moonlight; perhaps an old memory or two that had come back to him, or the thought of the exercise he had missed; or, again (but this is mere conjecture), the glass or two of College port may have done something to put his mind in a mood for adventure. Anyhow, he got on his tricycle, and started for a ride into the country. He only hoped the Bursar had not seen him; not that there was any reason why he shouldn't ride at night, but the Bursar made up such funny stories about the Sub-Warden and his tricycle rides.

And so he rode lightly along, over the vague roads, barred here and there by the blue shadows of the trees—rode lightly along through the ancient Oxfordshire country; and he laughed in his genial Tory heart as he thought of the Vicar's absurd political panic. No, a ripple of Radical excitement in the towns perhaps, but it would hardly touch the country. The labourers must know who were their real friends and leaders. And yet it was outrageous, he thought, as he began pushing his machine up a hill, it was outrageous that anyone should have such views. But that members of the University should go and speak at their dreadful meetings! The Sub-Warden shook his head and sighed, as he thought of the University—its sad change, its evil state. Could it, indeed, be still called a University? Ah, in the old days, before the Royal Commissions! But when he mounted his machine again at the top of the hill, he forgot these black thoughts, and rode quickly down—indeed, he almost felt himself on wings—into the village he saw below him, an old village, spread out asleep in the moonlight. He went on slow wheels through the blue-shadowed streets; he breathed in the night air, sweet-scented from the village gardens; he felt young in his soul, and would hardly recognize as his own the respectable, fat shadow that wheeled after him across each moon-lit space.

All at once, in the midst of the sleeping village, there appeared in front of him a square red building, with brightly lighted windows. Curious to know what was going on, he rode his machine up to one of the windows, and, looking through the glass, misty from the heat and perspiration within, he saw vague rows of dark figures, and an upright shape moving its arms at the end of the hall. What could it be? Around at the door, whither he wheeled himself, there was a big poster, partly torn, with the word "Temperance" on it, and something else pinned across it. "That's right, that's right!" the Sub-Warden exclaimed, "that's the way to cut the ground from under the Radicals! Philpotts was right; it's a question of drink, not of politics."

And so he got down from his tricycle and went in for a moment. Dazed by the heat and light, he stood still and stared about. The orator also stopped and stared at him. There were bright texts of Scripture and temperance mottoes on the walls; but the Sub-Warden kept gazing at these words, "The Lord is at Hand," hung in large letters over the orator's head. But this orator was Thomas Woolley, his own pupil! Soon it all seemed clear to him. Woolley was known as a Temperance speaker, and here he had come to hold a meeting in a little village. The Sub-Warden applauded, and Woolley began to speak again. But as he gasped a good deal, and stuttered, the Sub-Warden could only catch phrases here and there—cold remnants, they seemed to be, of what must have been written as a fiery peroration. "The down-trodden—I mean the inactive ... the great heart of humanity—and—and—things—.... Now is the time for hand to join in hand, and rush to the banner—I mean, it would be better if you would sign your names."

("That's the pledge-book," the Sub-Warden thought. "Yes, I dare say it's right; you could not preach moderate drinking to labourers.")

"Deliver yourself from the classes—that—that profit by your weakness...."

("That's the public-house keepers," the Sub-Warden reflected. "But why does he call them classes?")

Woolley stared hard at the notes which he gripped in his hand, and then he turned and pointed at a place at the back of the platform, which he called "the Future," and began to speak about a model dwelling, a cow, and a vine and fig-tree; then his voice sank, and he wavered and sat down.

"He expects a good deal from Temperance," the Sub-Warden thought; "what a thing it is to be young!" And he applauded with vigour, such vigour that several rustics in the audience turned and fixed him with their ruminating eyes. Then the Sub-Warden rose (he never spoke in public, but as he had interrupted this meeting!), rose with dignity and internal tremors, and made a few smiling remarks; nothing very definite, for, after all, he was not a total abstainer; just his sympathy with the speech of his young friend, his entire approval of the objects of the meeting, his regret that academic duties held him back from a more active participation in the work.... But if there was anything that he or the College authorities could do to forward the cause—he believed that their College owned land in the neighbourhood—they must not hesitate to call upon him. Then a mild joke, and he sat down and wiped his face.

Certainly his speech was a great success. Woolley stared wildly at him, but the audience applauded with vigour, and, as they were giving three cheers for "the old College gentleman," the Sub-Warden slipped modestly out. It was hot in there, and they might be handing pledge-books about.

The mood in which he rode home was a pleasant one. Really he had never heard applause that was quite so warm, so evidently sincere, so spontaneous. There had been nothing like it when the Warden of St. Mary's had spoken at the Corn Exchange. And Temperance was such a dull subject! It was a bore, of course, for a man who loved his quiet to find he had the power of moving an audience; but still, if the Radicals were working so hard, the other side must come forward.

The Sub-Warden went back into College, and, as he was walking across the quadrangle, he heard a tumult of cheers and cries burst out on the moon-lit stillness of the night. He started—the sounds fitted in so well with his dreams! But, of course, it was a Debating Society; and the window being open, the Sub-Warden went up and listened in his new quality of an amateur. A small young man, with a round face and deep voice, was thumping on a table. "What is the meaning, the outcome of this agitation? It is putting blood into the mouth of a tiger"—(applause)—"and when once the tiger has tasted blood, has tasted property that is not his own, it demands more, and it will have it! Yes, sir," he said, turning with a fierce look at the good-natured president of the society, "mark my words, when the poor have divided, like the tiger, everything there is to be divided; when there is nothing left to feed their rage, then, sir, they will turn and rend themselves—like the tiger!"

Great shouts of applause roared through the window, and the bald-headed old gentleman listening outside smiled an indulgent smile. But as the speaker went on, denouncing more definitely the Radical agitators, and even Woolley, by name, the smile faded from the Sub-Warden's face. It must have been a Temperance meeting; and yet—and yet—"Temperance" had been printed on the poster—but hadn't there been something pinned over that, something which he hadn't read? The Sub-Warden looked about. He could see one or two towers against the faint sky, and near each College tower was a Common Room, and in each Common Room the Fellows sat after dinner, telling stories. But suppose he had really spoken at a meeting which—which wasn't a Temperance meeting, and the Bursar should hear of it!

The Sub-Warden lurked about in the quadrangle, holding his hat in his hand, and spying out for Woolley. He came at last.

"Good evening, Woolley," he said, "you have come from the Temperance meeting?"

"Oh, sir, it wasn't a Temperance meeting, that was the night before!"

"Oh!" said the Sub-Warden, coldly.

"No, sir, it was a different meeting; in fact, the Radical League. I was so afraid—"

"What! Then it was very wrong of you, Woolley, to give me to understand it was a Temperance meeting."

"Oh, please, sir—"

"Don't try to explain it, it admits of no explanation," the Sub-Warden said severely. "I should be sorry to get you into trouble, Woolley, but if this should get to be known, I couldn't answer for the consequences. I shall take no steps personally to make it known, and I should advise you to mention it to no one—to no one at all, do you understand? It's—it's nothing to be proud of."

He walked indignantly away; and, indeed, for the moment his words had made him feel really indignant. But when, on turning a corner, he glanced back and saw the honest Woolley still standing there, he hesitated. Should he return and explain? He took a step back, then he thought of the Bursar, and, with a sudden, sinking fear he went quickly to his room.