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When their second year begins at Oxford, things have changed. Sebastian feels old, he says, and he’s been getting a series of talking tos from Monsignor Bell and Mr. Samgrass, who is his tutor and friend of his mother’s.
Charles feels middle-aged, as though they can’t expect to have any more fun at Oxford.
Anthony Blanche, meanwhile, has left. He’s in Munich with some policeman to whom he’s "formed an attachment.".
Indeed, this second year is far less eventful than the first. Sebastian and Charles retreat into the shadows, so to speak. It’s so boring that Charles even starts to miss his cousin Jasper – there’s no one left to shock. After his gluttonous summer, he decides to settle down.
In addition to his other studies, Charles joins an art school and produces what he deems worthless drawings in their twice weekly meetings. He starts dressing more appropriately and becomes a respectable member of his college.
Sebastian is different; he retreats into solitude, grows more sullen and lacks energy. The pair spends more time together and gradually stops seeing the group of friends they made in their first year. He chalks some of this up to Anthony’s absence.
Not far into the first year, Lady Marchmain comes to visit. She tries to make Charles her friend, which is problematic for his relationship with Sebastian.
Sebastian’s mother is creating a memorial book for her brother, Ned, who has died in World War I and left behind a trove of historic documents. Mr. Samgrass is a history don (don = professor) and author himself, so he is helping her out with the endeavor. This is, supposedly, her reason for visiting the University.
Charles indulges in some further description of Mr. Samgrass. He’s one of those guys who spends his life sifting through archived documents. He knows everything about old British families of royal blood, the politics of the Catholic church and its members in the Vatican, old scandals, etc. Charles finds Mr. Samgrass to be in great contrast to Lady Marchmain.
A few weeks later, Charles is alone in Sebastian’s room, waiting for him to return, when Julia walks in with a man named Rex Mottram. The three of them and Sebastian all end up having lunch together.
Rex has a Canadian accent and is a forward, engaging man. He’s done well with money, is a member of Parliament, and has curried favor with Important People. He never went to the University, because he didn’t want to waste his life with education. In short, he’s a businessman, to an extent. And he’s thirty-ish.
Julia treats him with "mild disdain" and "possession," but that’s how she treats everyone.
A week later Rex invites Charles, Sebastian, and Boy Mulcaster to a party of sorts. They head to Marchmain house (the Flytes’ second home, in London, whereas Brideshead is in the country) to have some drinks beforehand, and it turns out that the party is a charity ball for one of Julia’s organizations.
When Julia arrives dressed for the ball, Charles describes her as "unhurried, exquisite, unrepentant." Take note, reader.
The result of all this drinking beforehand and all this waiting for the women to dress and get ready is that everyone is quite drunk before they ever get to the function. Mulcaster tipsily suggests they sneak away and go to Ma Mayfield’s, a totally sketchy joint in town where he "has" a girl named Effie.
So shortly after they arrive at the ball, the three men – Charles, Sebastian, and Boy – sneak away. They walk the short distance back to Marchmain house to take Hardcastle’s car (in which they drove from Oxford).
Once they’re in Ma Mayfield’s, the men continue to drink (surprise!). Boy finds this girl Effie, who seems to not remember him, though she’s more than happy to have him buy her food and drinks. Charles and Sebastian end up with two girls of their own, one that Charles refers to as Death Head and the other Sickly Child. The men end up leaving Ma Mayfield’s, with all three women.
Sebastian takes the wheel. This is a very bad idea. The women sense as much and leave the car, shortly before the men are pulled over and, after some drunken protesting on the part of Mulcaster, arrested.
In jail, the men decide to call Rex, since he seems like the sort of guy who could handle a situation like this one.
And handle he does. Rex shows up with enough Cuban cigars and hand-shaking charm to make the policemen happy. Clearly "rejoicing in his efficiency," he takes the three guys home to his place.
The next morning they discuss the issue. Sebastian is in the most trouble, as he was driving drunk. They agree to submit to the charges and explain that they’re simply good Oxford boys, unused to drinking wine (HA!).
As they wait at the courthouse, Sebastian wants to go abroad. He’d sooner go to prison, he says, than deal with the downfall from his family (mostly his mother and brother).
He and Charles meet up with Julia, who wishes they had taken her with them, as she’s always wanted to see the Old Hundredth (the name of Ma Mayfield's club).
She explains that Lady Marchmain isn’t really upset, and wants to have lunch with Charles and Sebastian.
So they do. Lady Marchmain seems to find the whole thing humorous, though she does worry over having to explain it to the rest of her family. Afterwards, Charles is relieved, not understanding why Sebastian still looks completely miserable.
Because of the prestige attached to Sebastian’s family name, the newspapers are all over the event. They publish the story with a headline: "Marquis’s Son Unused to Wine" or "Model Student’s Career at Stake" and a good chuckle is had by all who know better, which by now includes us, the readers. Still, Sebastian gets off easy thanks to Mr. Samgrass’s testimony that he is a fine individual.
Back at Oxford, Samgrass uses more of his influence, unfortunately to "gate" Sebastian and Charles. (They are confined to their respective colleges as punishment. For definitions and other fun slang, check out Shmoop’s "Links" page.)
But the worst penalty, says Charles, was being forced into close acquaintance with both Mr. Samgrass and Rex Mottram.
Samgrass, especially, has that annoying habit of turning every encounter into an intimate bond between himself and the boys. He starts visiting one or both of them every night, to check up and tell long, boring stories about his time at Brideshead and the people he meets, including Celia, Boy Mulcaster’s sister, who is apparently "saucy." (More on her later.)
During Charles’s time at Brideshead over the Christmas vacation, Sebastian’s mother continues to try to make him her friend. She talks of converting him to Catholicism, which doesn’t help her in the friendship endeavor.
Charles remembers bits of their conversations, including Lady Marchmain’s personal history. She married into money and used to worry that being rich was wrong when so many people in the world were suffering, but then she realized that God favors the poor, so she was really suffering herself by being wealthy. (Life is so hard.)
But despite these long, intimate talks, Charles remains firmly on Sebastian’s side. He worries for his friend, who these days wishes only to be left alone. Charles compares him to a Polynesian native, happy and peaceful on his island until a big ship drops anchor at the shore and he is forced into battle with the rest of the world. Sebastian’s time "in Arcadia" is limited, says Charles.
He also begins to understand Sebastian’s wary suspicions regarding his family and religion. When he can’t stand his family anymore, Sebastian asks to go to London. Charles takes him back to his house, and Charles’s father finds him "very amusing."
Back at Oxford, Charles sees this sadness growing in Sebastian, but doesn’t know how to help. Drinking gets to be an issue too – Charles recognizes that he himself drinks for the "love of the moment," but that Sebastian drinks "to escape." (Hmm, it's almost as if we’ve heard something like this before…)
At Easter, they all head to Brideshead for the holiday. Sebastian is in a great depression and Charles cannot help him. Sebastian just drinks in the library, secretly, all day. He gets worse when the guests are gone and he has to face his family alone.
One night he’s too drunk to even come down to dinner and simply locks himself in his room. Charles covers for him, pretending he’s just got a cold.
When Charles tells Julia the truth, she doesn’t seem to recognize the severity of the situation – she simply declares her brother "boring."
Sebastian is sitting in Charles’s room, plastered and openly resenting Charles "spying" on him for his mother.
Down at dinner, Cordelia spills the beans to Lady Marchmain. The Earl of Brideshead deals with it in his own way – by being removed and declaring that you can’t stop people when they want to get drunk.
Some considerable time after dinner Sebastian comes down, even more plastered than before, to "apologize." NOT to his mother, he announces, but to Charles, his "only friend." Charles takes him back up to his room, where Sebastian starts weeping. He feels betrayed.
The next morning Sebastian wants to leave Brideshead – along with Charles. But Ryder isn’t comfortable with just running away and not saying good-bye, so he lets Sebastian leave without him and promises to meet his friend in London. This leaves Charles alone at Brideshead – with Sebastian’s family.
Charles finds Lady Marchmain, who is distraught not by Sebastian’s drunkenness the night before, but by his depression. She doesn’t know why he left without saying good-bye; Charles explains that her son is "ashamed of being unhappy."
This has all happened before, says Lady Marchmain – with Sebastian’s father. He used to drink the same way, and he used to run away the same way. He, too, was ashamed of being unhappy.
Then she asks for Charles to help Sebastian – because she can’t. She also asks Charles to take a look at her brother Ned’s memorial book – the one she’s been putting together with Mr. Samgrass.
Charles realizes that Lady Marchmain is manipulating him, trying to get him to betray his friend. Later that morning, as he leaves Brideshead, Cordelia comes out and asks him to give Sebastian her "special love."
In the train on the way to London, Charles looks over the book that Lady Marchmain gave him, and we get some background on her family. She doesn’t look anything like her three brothers, and is older than the oldest brother by nine years. She also has two sisters.
The book itself is a series of letters, journal entries, and photographs, all revolving around her now dead brothers. He wonders if Lady Marchmain is going to die soon as well.
When Charles reaches London, he finds Sebastian as youthful and as cheery as when he first met him. Sebastian knows Charles has talked with his mother, and he asks if Charles has gone over to her side.
No, says Charles, he is with Sebastian, against everyone else.
When they return to Oxford, Sebastian’s depression kicks in again. They find a flat to share for the upcoming term. When Charles bumps into Mr. Samgrass, however, the don tells him not to commit.
Sebastian admits that his mother wants him to live with Monsignor Bell. As soon as Lady Marchmain knew she’d failed getting Charles on her side, she started a new plot.
Then she comes to visit, and stops for lunch with Charles. She wants to know if Sebastian’s drinking too much. Charles says no.
So of course that night Sebastian gets hammered and is found by a junior dean stumbling around campus at 1am. Apparently he’s gotten into a habit of drinking alone after Charles departs for the evening.
Charles is angry with Sebastian for having made him look like a liar to Lady Marchmain. He also thinks it’s ridiculous for Sebastian to drink every time his family is around.
Charles tries to explain to Lady Marchmain what happened, but she insists it’s no use, that there’s nothing to be done about a drunkard’s lies.
She also worries that Charles is Sebastian’s only friend – that there are no Catholics for him to hang about with. He’s not strong enough to keep his faith alone, she says.
She explains that Sebastian’s college will allow him to continue only if he goes to live with Monsignor Bell; Charles counters that this will make Sebastian drink himself silly. He’ll be miserable, and he’s someone who needs to feel free.
That night Sebastian confirms this, alone with Charles. He’s going to visit his father in Italy instead of putting up with this garbage at Oxford. And then they get roaringly drunk together. Again.
The next day Sebastian leaves with his mother. Charles is left to converse with Brideshead (who also came to Oxford for this ambush). Charles insists that, were it not for religion, Sebastian would have had a chance to be happy.
That night Charles goes to visit Collins, one of their buddies from the first year, to fill the void Sebastian left. He can’t.
At the end of the term he returns home and asks his father if he wants him to finish his degree. Of course not, says his father, it’s no use to either of them.
So Charles decides he wants to be a painter.
Shortly thereafter, Charles receives a letter from Lady Marchmain, explaining that Sebastian has gone to stay with his father and will be chaperoned around Europe by Mr. Samgrass after that. He may come back to Oxford after next Christmas.