The further adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an Oxford under-graduate/Chapter 6
MR. VERDANT GREEN FEATHERS HIS OARS WITH SKILL AND DEXTERITY.
November is not always the month of fog and mist and dulness. Oftentimes there are brilliant exceptions to that generally-received rule of depressing weather, which, in this month (according to our lively neighbours), induces the natives of our English metropolis to leap in crowds from the Bridge of Waterloo. There are in November, days of calm beauty, which are peculiar to that month—that kind of calm beauty which is so often seen as the herald of decay.
But, whatever weather the month may bring to Oxford, it never brings gloom or despondency to Oxford men. They are a happily constituted set of beings, and can always create their own amusements; they crown Minerva with flowers without heeding her influenza, and never seem to think that the rosy-bosomed Hours may be laid up with bronchitis. Winter and summer appear to be pretty much the same to them: reading and recreation go hand-in-hand all the year round; and, among other pleasures, that of boating finds as many votaries in cold November, as it did in sunny June—indeed, the chilness of the air, in the former month, gives zest to an amusement which degenerates to hard labour in the dog-days. The classic Isis in the month of November, therefore, whenever the weather is anything like favourable, presents an animated scene. Eight-oars pass along, the measured pull of the oars in the rowlocks marking the time in musical cadence with their plashing dip in the water; perilous skiffs flit like fire-flies over the glassy surface of the river; men lounge about in the house-boats and barges, or gather together at King's, or Hall's, and industriously promulgate small talk and tobacco-smoke. All is gay and bustling. Although the feet of the strollers in the Christ-Church meadows rustle through the sere and yellow leaf, yet rich masses of brown and russet foliage still hang upon the trees, and light up into gold in the sun. The sky is of a cold but bright blue; the distant hills and woods are mellowed into sober purplish-gray tints, but over them the sun looks down with that peculiar red glow which is only seen in November.
It was one of these bright days of "the month of gloom," that Mr. Verdant Green and Mr. Charles Larkyns being in the room of their friend, Mr. Bouncer, the little gentleman inquired, "Now then! what are you two fellers up to? I'm game for anything, I am! from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter."
"I'm afraid," said Charles Larkyns, "that we can't accommodate you in either amusement, although we are going down to the river, with which Verdant wishes to renew his acquaintance. Last term, you remember, you picked him up in the Gut, when he had been played with at pitch-and-toss in a way that very nearly resembled manslaughter."
"I remember, I remember, how old Giglamps floated by!" said Mr. Bouncer; "you looked like a half-bred mermaid Giglamps."
"But the gallant youth," continued Mr. Larkyns, "undismayed by the perils from which he was then happily preserved, has boldly come forward and declared himself a worshipper of Isis, in a way worthy of the ancient Egyptians, or of Tom Moore's Epicurean."
"Well! stop a minute you fellers," said Mr. Bouncer; "I must have my beer first: I can't do without my Bass relief. I'm like the party in the old song, and I likes a drop of good beer." And as he uncorked a bottle of Bass, little Mr. Bouncer sang, in notes as musical as those produced from his own tin horn—
"'Twixt wet and dry I always try
Between the extremes to steer;
Though I always shrunk from getting—intoxicated,
I was always fond of my beer!
For I likes a drop of good beer!
I'm particularly partial to beer!
Porter and swipes
Always give me the—stomach-ache!
But that's never the case with beer!"
"Bravo, Harry!" cried Charles Larkyns; "you roar us an' twere any nightingale. It would do old Bishop Still's heart good to hear you; and 'sure I think, that you can drink with any that wears a hood,' or that will wear a hood when you take your Bachelor's, and put on your gown." And Charles Larkyns sang, rather more musically than Mr. Bouncer had done, from that song which, three centuries ago, the Bishop had written in praise of good ale,—
Let back and side go bare, go bare,
Both hand and foot go cold:
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.
They were soon down at the river side, where Verdant was carefully put into a tub (alas! the dear, awkward, safe, old things are fast passing away; they are giving place to suicidal skiffs, and will soon be numbered among the boats of other days!)—and was started off with almost as much difficulty as on his first essay. The tub—which was, indeed, his old friend the Sylph,—betrayed an awkward propensity for veering round towards Folly Bridge, which our hero at first failed to overcome; and it was not until he had performed a considerable amount of crab-catching, that he was enabled to steer himself in the proper direction. Charles Larkyns had taken his seat in an outrigger skiff (so frail and shaky that it made Verdant nervous to look at it), and, with one or two powerful strokes, had shot ahead, backed water, turned, and pulled back round the tub long before Verdant had succeeded in passing that eccentric mansion, to which allusion has before been made, as possessing in the place of cellars, an ingenious system of small rivers to thoroughly irrigate its foundation—a hydropathic treatment which may (or may not) be agreeable in Venice, but strikes one as being decidedly cold and comfortless when applied to Oxford,—at any rate, in the month of November. Walking on the lawn which stretched from this house towards the river, our hero espied two extremely pretty young ladies, whose hearts he endeavoured at once to take captive by displaying all his powers in that elegant exercise in which they saw him engaged. It may reasonably be presumed that Mr. Verdant Green's hopes were doomed to be blighted.
Let us leave him, and take a look at Mr. Bouncer.
Mr. Bouncer had been content to represent the prowess of his college in the cricket-field, and had never aspired to any fame as an oar. The exertions, as well as the fame, of aquatic honours, he had left to Mr. Blades, and those others like him, who considered it a trifle to pull down to Iffley and back again, two or three times a day, at racing pace with a fresh spurt put on every five minutes. Mr. Bouncer, too, had an antipathy to eat beefsteaks otherwise than in the state in which they are usually brought to table; and, as it seemed a sine quâ non with the gentleman who superintended the training for the boat-races, that his pupils should daily devour beefsteaks which had merely looked at the fire, Mr. Bouncer, not having been brought up to cannibal habits, was unable to conform himself to this, and those other vital principles which seemed to regulate the science of aquatic training. The little gentleman moreover, did not join with the "Torpids" (as the second boats of a college are called), either, because he had a soul above them,—he would be aut Cæsar, aut nullus; either in the eight, or nowhere,—or else, because even the Torpids would cause him more trouble and pleasurable pain than would be agreeable to him. When Mr. Bouncer sat down on any hard substance, he liked to be able to do so without betraying any emotion that the action caused him personal discomfort; and he had noticed that many of the Torpids—not to mention one or two of the eight—were more particular than young men usually are about having a very easy, soft, and yielding chair to sit on.
Mr. Bouncer, too, was of opinion that continued blisters were both unsightly and unpleasant; and that rawness was bad enough when taken in conjunction with beefsteaks, without being extended to one's own hands. He had also a summer passion for ices and creams, which were forbidden luxuries to one in training,—although (paradoxical as it may seem to say so) they trained, on Isis! He had also acquired a bad habit of getting up in one day, and going to bed in the next,—keeping late hours, and only rising early when absolutely compelled to do so in order to keep morning chapel—a habit which the trainer would have interfered with, considerably to the little gentleman's advantage. He had also an amiable weakness for pastry, port, claret, "et hock genus omne;" and would have felt it a cruelty to have been deprived of his daily modicum of "smoke;" and in all these points, boat-training would have materially interfered with his comfort.
Mr. Bouncer, therefore, amused himself equally as much to his own satisfaction as if he had been one of the envied eight, by occasionally paddling about with Charles Larkyns in an old pair-oar, built by Davis and King, and bought by Mr. Bouncer of its late Brazenfacian proprietor, when that gentleman, after a humorous series of plucks, rustications, and heavy debts, had finally been compelled to migrate to the King's Bench, for that purification of purse and person commonly designated "whitewashing." When Charles Larkyns and his partner did not use their pair-oar, the former occupied his outrigger skiff; and the latter, taking Huz and Buz on board a sailing boat, tacked up and down the river with great skill, the smoke gracefully curling from his meerschaum or short black pipe,—for Mr. Bouncer disapproved of smoking cigars at those times when the wind would have assisted him to get through them.
"Hullo, Giglamps! here we are! as the clown says in the pantermime," sung out the little gentleman as he came up with our hero, who was performing some extraordinary feats in full sight of the University crew, who were just starting from their barge; "you get no end of exercise out of your tub, I should think, by the style you work those paddles: They go in and out beautiful! Splish, splash; splish, splash! You must be one of the wherry identical Row-brothers-row, whose voices kept tune and whose oars kept time, you know. You ought to go and splish-splash in the Freshman's River, Giglamps;—but I forgot—you ain't a freshman now, are you, old feller? Those swells in the University boats look as though they were bursting with envy—not to say, with laughter," added Mr. Bouncer, sotto voce. "Who taught you to do the dodge in such a stunning way, Giglamps?"
"Why, last term, Charles Larkyns did," responded Mr. Verdant Green, with the freshness of a Freshman still lingering lovingly upon him. "I've not forgotten what he told me,—to put in my oar deep, and to bring it out with a jerk. But though I make them go as deep as I can, and jerk them out as much as possible, yet the boat will keep turning round, and I can't keep it straight at all; and the oars are very heavy and unmanageable, and keep slipping out of the rowlocks—"
"Commonly called rullocks," put in Mr. Bouncer, as a parenthetical correction, or marginal note on Mr. Verdant Green's words.
"And when the Trinity boat went by, I could scarcely get out of their way; and they said very unpleasant things to me; and, altogether, I can assure you that it has made me very hot." "And a capital thing, too, Giglamps, this cold November day," said Mr. Bouncer; "I'm obliged to keep my coppers warm with this pea-coat, and my pipe. Charley came alongside me just now, on purpose to fire off one of his poetical quotations. He said that I reminded him of Beattie's Minstrel:
<poem>'Dainties he heeded not, nor gaud, nor toy,
Save one short pipe.'
"I think that was something like it. But you see, Giglamps, I haven't got a figure-head for these sort of things like Charley has, so I couldn't return his shot; but since then, to me deeply pondering, as those old Greek parties say, a fine sample of our superior old crusted jokes has come to hand; and when Charley next pulls alongside, I shall tell him that I am like that beggar we read about in old Slowcoach's lecture the other day, and that, if I had been in the humour, I could have sung out, Io Bacche! I owe baccy—d'ye see, Giglamps? Well, old feller! you look rather puffed, so clap on your coat; and, if there's a rope's end, or a chain, in your tub, and you'll just pay it out here, I'll make you fast astern, and pull you down the river; and then you'll be in prime condition to work yourself up again. The wind's in our back, and we shall get on jolly."
So our hero made fast the tub to his friend's sailing-boat, and was towed as far as the Haystack. During the voyage Mr. Bouncer ascertained that Mr. Charles Larkyns had improved some of the shining hours of the long vacation considerably to Mr. Verdant Green's benefit, by teaching him the art of swimming—a polite accomplishment of which our hero had been hitherto ignorant. Little Mr. Bouncer, therefore, felt easier in his mind, if any repetition of his involuntary bath in the Gut should befal our hero; and, after giving him (wonderful to say) some correct advice regarding the management of the oars, he cast off the Sylph, and left her and our hero to their own devices. But, profiting by the friendly hints which he had received, Mr. Verdant Green made considerable progress in the skill and dexterity with which he feathered his oars; and he sat in his tub looking as wise as Diogenes may (perhaps) have done in his. He moreover pulled the boat back to Hall's without meeting with any accident worth mentioning; and when he had got on shore he was highly complimented by Mr. Blades and a group of boating gentlemen "for the admirable display of science which he had afforded them."
Mr. Verdant Green was afterwards taken alternately by Charles Larkyns and Mr. Bouncer in their pair-oar; so that, by the end of the term, he at any rate knew more of boating than to accept as one of its fundamental rules, "put your oar in deep, and bring it out with a jerk."
In the first week in December he had an opportunity of pulling over a fresh piece of water. One of those inundations occurred to which Oxford is so liable, and the meadow-land to the south and west of the city was covered by the flood. Boats plied to and from the railway station in place of omnibuses; the Great Western was not to be seen for water; and, at the Abingdon-road bridge, at Cold-harbour, the rails were washed away, and the trains brought to a stand-still. The Isis was amplified to the width of the Christchurch meadows; the Broad Walk had a peep of itself upside down in the glassy mirror; the windings of the Cherwell could only be traced by the trees on its banks. There was
"Water, water everywhere;"
and a disagreeable quantity of it too, as those Christchurch men whose ground-floor rooms were towards the meadows soon discovered. Mr. Bouncer is supposed to have brought out one of his "fine, old, crusted jokes," when he asserted in reference to the inundation, that "Nature had assumed a lake complexion." Posts and rails, and hay, and a miscellaneous collection of articles, were swept along by the current, together with the bodies of hapless sheep and pigs. But, in spite of these incumbrances, boats of all descriptions were to be seen sailing, pulling, skiffing, and punting, over the flooded meadows. Numerous were the disasters, and many were the boats that were upset.
Indeed, the adventures of Mr. Verdant Green would probably have here terminated in a misadventure, had he not (thanks to Charles Larkyns) mastered the art of swimming; for he was in Mr. Bouncer's sailing-boat, which was sailing very merrily over the flood, when its merriness was suddenly checked by its grounding on the stump of a lopped pollard willow, and forthwith capsizing. Our hero, who had been sitting in the bows, was at once swept over by the sail, and, for a moment, was in great peril; but, disengaging himself from the cordage, he struck out, and swam to a willow whose friendly boughs and top had just formed an asylum for Mr. Bouncer, who in great anxiety was coaxing Huz and Buz to swim to the same ark of safety.Mr. Verdant Green and Mr. Bouncer were speedily rescued from their position, and were not a little thankful for their escape.
- ——"Si collibuisset, ab ovo Usque ad mala citaret, Io Bacche!"—Hor. Sat. Lib. i. 3.