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When Tom Helmer's father died, his mother, who had never been able to manage him, sent him to school to get rid of him, lamented his absence till he returned, then writhed and fretted under his presence until again he went. Never thereafter did those two, mother and son, meet, whether from a separation of months or of hours, without at once tumbling into an obstinate difference. When the youth was at home, their sparring, to call it by a mild name, went on from morning to night, and sometimes almost from night to morning. Primarily, of course, the fault lay with the mother; and things would have gone far worse, had not the youth, along with the self-will of his mother, inherited his father's good nature. At school he was a great favorite, and mostly had his own way, both with boys and masters, for, although a fool, he was a pleasant fool, clever, fond of popularity, and complaisant with everybody--except always his mother, the merest word from whom would at once rouse all the rebel in his blood. In person he was tall and loosely knit, with large joints and extremities. His face was handsome and vivacious, expressing far more than was in him to express, and giving ground for expectation such as he had never met. He was by no means an ill- intentioned fellow, preferred doing well and acting fairly, and neither at school nor at college had got into any serious scrape. But he had never found it imperative to reach out after his own ideal of duty. He had never been worthy the name of student, or cared much for anything beyond the amusements the universities provide so liberally, except dabbling in literature. Perhaps his only vice was self-satisfaction--which few will admit to be a vice; remonstrance never reached him; to himself he was ever in the right, judging himself only by his sentiments and vague intents, never by his actions; that these had little correspondence never struck him; it had never even struck him that they ought to correspond. In his own eyes he did well enough, and a good deal better. Gifted not only with fluency of speech, that crowning glory and ruin of a fool, but with plausibility of tone and demeanor, a confidence that imposed both on himself and on others, and a certain dropsical impressionableness of surface which made him seem and believe himself sympathetic, nobody could well help liking him, and it took some time to make one accept the disappointment he caused.
He was now in his twenty-first year, at home, pretending that nothing should make him go back to Oxford, and enjoying more than ever the sport of plaguing his mother. A soul-doctor might have prescribed for him a course of small-pox, to be followed by intermittent fever, with nobody to wait upon him but Mrs. Gamp: after that, his mother might have had a possible chance with him, and he with his mother. But, unhappily, he had the best of health--supreme blessing in the eyes of the fool whom it enables to be a worse fool still; and was altogether the true son of his mother, who consoled herself for her absolute failure in his moral education with the reflection that she had reared him sound in wind and limb. Plaguing his mother, amusing himself as best he could, riding about the country on a good mare, of which he was proud, he was living in utter idleness, affording occasion for much wonder that he had never yet disgraced himself. He talked to everybody who would talk to him, and made acquaintance with anybody on the spur of the moment's whim. He would sit on a log with a gypsy, and bamboozle him with lies made for the purpose, then thrash him for not believing them. He called here and called there, made himself specially agreeable everywhere, went to every ball and evening party to which he could get admittance in the neighborhood, and flirted with any girl who would let him. He meant no harm, neither had done much, and was imagined by most incapable of doing any. The strange thing to some was that he staid on in the country, and did not go to London and run up bills for his mother to pay; but the mare accounted for a good deal; and the fact that almost immediately on his late return he had seen Letty and fallen in love with her at first sight, accounted for a good deal more. Not since then, however, had he yet been able to meet her so as only to speak to her; for Thornwick was one of the few houses of the middle class in the neighborhood where he was not encouraged to show himself. He was constantly, therefore, on the watch for a chance of seeing her, and every Sunday went to church in that same hope and no other. But Letty knew nothing of the favor in which she stood with him; for, although Tom had, as we have heard, confessed to her friend Mary Marston his admiration of her, Mary had far too much good sense to make herself his ally in the matter.
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