Tales of College Life/The Only Man Left in College on Christmas Day
THE ONLY MAN LEFT IN COLLEGE ON CHRISTMAS DAY.
THE CHRISTMAS "COACH."
I 'LL never do so again! If I do, may I be plucked for my "Greats!" And that, my Masters, is a big oath; for this is the Oxonian for "Great Go;" which in its turn, is the equivalent for the "Examination in literis humanioribus for the degree of B.A." So that you may suppose I am terribly in earnest when I say, I 'll never do so again!
When I came to the resolution of staying up in Oxford during the short Christmas Vacation, and spending Christmas-day in the deserted halls of Brazenface, I had no suspicion that I should be left there as solitary as Robinson Crusoe. I had not the most remote idea that I should be the monarch of all I surveyed; that my right there could be none to dispute; that, to the Master's Lodge over the way, I should be the only poor desolate brute. But so it was! And relentless fate must have had a delightful time of it, when she saw me register that resolution.
Willoughby, Collins, and I, having hunted, and idled, together for the last twelve months, had taken it into our heads to forswear Suppers and "Wines;" and, in their stead, to open our cob-webbed Lexicons, to spread over the table with Greek Plays and Aldrich, and old "Thicksides" (as we profanely called "Thucydides"), and to start a reading "coach," of which I was constituted the "unicorn," or leader. Like all similar coaches, we went off at a slapping pace, scarcely staying for meals; and at the end of a fortnight found ourselves so blown, that we were fain to bait with a wine party. This threw us back at least a week, and when we had started once more, we found we were obliged to retrace our steps over a good deal of the road along which we had come so merrily. In another fortnight just as we had got into condition again, and were beginning to pick up flesh, Term ended. So we held a virtuous debate, in which it was unanimously agreed upon, that the Christmas festivities, and pretty girls we should meet at home, would most undeniably and effectually disperse the heavier classical and logical awkward-squad we had with so much difficulty marshalled into our respective brains. The stern resolution was therefore adopted, that the Reading Coach should run through the Christmas Vacation; and the next day we got the necessary licence to allow this.
When we had seen the last team of men off from the Mitre, and the last train leave the Station, and had walked up the deserted High, and had come back across the now dreary and silent Quad, of Brazenface to my snug rooms, we sat down by the firelight, and there talked as Martyrs may have talked—as Curtius may have talked, the night before he leapt into the pit in the Forum,—as Coriolanus may have talked, when he went out to war against his wife and children,—as Mr. John O'Connell may have talked, when he was about to die for his country on the floor of the House,—as any one may have talked, who, as our popular Comedians express it, have "been and gone, and done it," and voluntarily given themselves up to disagreeable alternatives.
All went on well till Christmas Eve. Like cloistered monks, we buried ourselves within the college walls, and only issued forth for rapid constitutionals. As Indians at the stake are said to relieve their pains by biting through their tongues, so we felt a certain relief in violent reading, and in thus revenging ourselves on those studies which kept us from so many pleasures. On Christmas-eve, Collins and I had gone out together alone for our diurnal constitutional, Willoughby having pleaded a headache; and when, after a stiff header round Hillingdon Hill, we had returned to my rooms, what was our surprise at reading the following laconic epistle, which was lying on the table:—
"Dearly beloved Charley and Collins,—By the time you read this, I fervently trust I shall have got clean away from Alma Mater. The nearer we came to Christmas-day, the more undutifully I thought I was acting in not going home to see my own Alma Mater, who, I 'll be bound for it, has been sobbing her eyes out, at the thought of having to eat her plum-pudding without her young Hopeful to help her. Excuse me putting a ruse upon you, but I was afraid you would lay violent hands on me, and detain, against my will, in this dreary Brazenface,
"W. Longueville Willoughby."
THE CHRISTMAS DINNER.
I had lain rather late, having no horrid bell to rouse me up for chapel, so it was after ten o'clock in the morning of Christmas-day before I went to Collins's rooms to breakfast, for he and I always boiled one kettle between us. There was the breakfast laid out, certainly, but only for one. And, to increase my wonderment, on diving into his bedroom, where I heard somebody moving, whom should I see but old Mrs. Tester, the bed-maker, busily employed in cramming linen, clothes, and a heterogeneous mass of articles into the portmanteaus that were gathered around her. The fearful truth at once flashed upon my mind! Collins was gone!
"Tell—me tell me the worst!" I gasped out, and old Mrs. Tester handed me the following note:—
I would much rather pass over the events of the day. I should not like to expose myself in the eyes of the public, as I feel I did in the eyes of the respectable Mrs. Tester. But I did not go home by the next train; I stayed where I was. I laughed a hollow "Ha! ha!"—like I had heard the Stage Pirates and Villains do; and I rather think I wished myself a stage villain, that I might do somebody an injury, and expend the fury of my gloomy anger. Hall-time came, and I slank across the Quad, for my dinner. There was a cloth laid for me across the end of one of the long tables, and the nearest chandelier had two of its lamps lit for my special benefit. Of course there was no High-table; any of the Dons, who were still in residence, would dine together on that day; and now Willoughby and Collins were gone, I was positively the only man left up—the only man left in College on Christmas-day! "Ha! ha!" Desolation had marked me for her own.
Our Dining-Hall at Brazenface is, as every one knows, one of the largest in Oxford, and the feeble light from the two solitary lamps only made it appear the more vast and solitary. When I peered into its farthest depths, and thought of the brilliancy, and crowd, and laughter, and loud hum of conversation, that, during the Term, reigned there at that time, I cut into the roast beef before me with a savage energy. At least, I had the proper Christmas dinner! They gave me that! But I think it only made me worse: if I had had other dishes, I might possibly have forgotten the day, and not felt so wretched. The cook, however, in his mistaken kindness, decorated the plum-pudding with a large piece of holly; and there was no forgetting that it was Christmas. My scout waited upon me: to do so, he had been obliged to leave a party of his fellow-servants, and was sulky, accordingly. He told me of this, and asked my permission to rejoin them, as soon as he had put my tea-things ready against I wanted them. So even he was going to a merry party, and would be in company, and enjoy himself; whilst I——"Ha! ha!"
The very eyes of the Founders and Benefactors seemed to be fixed upon me, from their canvas, as I ate my solitary dinner. It was soon over: it was not at all the sort of thing I wished to linger upon: and I walked out of Hall, and through the Second Quad. to the cloisters of our Chapel. It was the most lonely place I could find, and it harmonised with my thoughts and condition.
There, busy Fancy took me back to past Christmas-days, and showed me all their joys and pleasures. I saw the happy groups of home, the family meetings, the hearty-welcome of long-loved faces, the greeting of well-remembered friends, the gathering round the social table, the laughing faces of the children, the light-hearted smiles of all, the cheerful fire-side, the gleaming holly-berries and shining leaves, the mistletoe hanging enticingly from the ceiling, the noisy games, and the merry dance,—I saw all these; and, my classical reading not yet having converted me into a stoic, resolution gave way before nature; and within an hour I had packed up a few things, followed Willoughby’s and Collins’s example, and was being whirled away by the Express Train, every moment farther and farther from Oxford. I never before was so glad to leave it!
Thanks to the blessings of the railway, and the pace we went, I got home that night, much to the astonishment of the assembled party, in time to bid them "a merry Christmas," before they broke up; and in time, too, to kiss Helen Clifford under the mistletoe!
I don't think that Mrs. Tester will ever again be able to say of me, that I was the only man left in College on Christmas-day. If she can, may I be plucked for my Greats!