Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Cambridge Boat-Race
By Charles Astor Bristed (18201874)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1820. Died in Washington, D.C., 1874. Five Years in an English University. 1852.]
THERE is one great point where the English have the advantage over us: they understand how to take care of their health. Not that the Cantabs are either tee-totallers or Grahamites. There is indeed a tradition that a total-abstinence society was once established in Cambridge, and that in three years it increased to two members; whether it be still in existence, however, I have not been able to learn. But every Cantab takes his two hours exercise per diem, by walking, riding, rowing, fencing, gymnastics, etc. How many colleges are there here where the students average one hour a day real exercise? Our Columbia boys roll ten-pins and play billiards, which is better than nothing, but very inferior to out-door amusements. In New England (at least it was so ten years ago at Yale), the last thing thought of is exerciseeven the mild walks which are dignified with the name of exercise there, how unlike the Cantabs constitutional of eight miles in less than two hours! If there is a fifteen days prayer-meeting, or a thousand-and-first new debating-society, or a lecture on some specialité which may be of use to half a dozen out of the hundred or two who attend it, over goes the exercise at once. And the consequence iswhat? There is not a finer-looking set of young men in the world than the Cantabs, and as to their healthwhy, one hundred and thirty Freshmen enter at Trinity every year, and it is no unfrequent occurrence that, whatever loss they sustain from other causes (accidents will happen in the best regulated colleges), death takes away none of them during the three years and a half which comprise their under-graduate course. Whose memory can match this at Yale? If our youngsters exercised their legs and arms just four times as much as they do, and their tongues ten times as little, it would be the better for them every way. But I am not now reading a lecture on dietetics, so let us come back to the shores of the Cam.
Classic Camus being a very narrow stream, scarcely wider than a canal, it is impossible for the boats to race side by side. The following expedient has therefore been adopted: They are drawn up in a line, two lengths between each, and the contest consists in each boat endeavoring to touch with its bow the stern of the one before it, which operation is called bumping; and at the next race the bumper takes the place of the bumped. The distance rowed is about one mile and three quarters. To be head of the river is a distinction much coveted and hard fought for. Each college has at least one boat-club; in Trinity there are three, with three or four crews in each. About nine races take place in the season; they are of great use in preparing the men for the annual match with Oxford, in which the Cantabs are generally victorious. Indeed, they are the best smooth-water oars in England, if not in the world.
The Caius boat at this time was head of the river, the First Trinity second, the Third Trinity the third. Some hard pulling was expected among the leading boats. The Third Trinity were confident of bumping the first.
While you have been reading the above, you may suppose H and myself viewing the scene of action, distant about two miles from the town. The time of starting is at hand, and gownsmen (not in their gowns) are hurrying by us on all sides, some mounted, but the greater part on foot; some following the beaten track, others taking a shorter cut over fields and fences. Here comes a sporting character, riding his own hanimal. See with what a knowing look man and horse approach the fence. Hip! he is over, and six inches to spare. Ah! here is another, who, though not very well mounted, must needs show his dexterity at the same place. Not quite, stranger! The horse has his fore feet clean over, but it by no means follows that he will do the same with the hind ones. Crack! he has hit the top bar and carried it off several yards. Not so bad after all. He might not do it again so neatly.
Bang! there goes the first gun! In three minutes there will be another, in two more a third, and then for it! What are those men laughing at? Ah! I see; no wonder. An ambitious character on a sorry hack has driven his Rozinante at a ditch. No you dont, mister! The horse, wiser than his rider, refuses the leap, with a sagacious shake of the head. He is hauled back for a fresh start, and the whip applied abundantly. Same result as before. The tittering of the passers-by reaches our heros ears; he waxes wrathful, and discharges on the reluctant steed a perfect hurricane of blows!
Spla-ash! with the utmost composure imaginable the old horse has stepped into the ditch, say three feet deep, casting his rider headlong by the abrupt descent. Serves you right, my friend. We cant stop to see what becomes of you, for there goes the second gun, and we must make haste to secure a good place. Well, here we are, at the upper end of the Long Reach. We can just spy the head of the first boat below yonder corner. As the hardest pulling always begins here, we shall have a good view of it. Ha! do you see that pull? The eight stalwart Caius men bent to their oars the moment the last gun flashed, and its report reaches our ears as they are stooping to the second stroke. Here they come at a rapid rate, and with them the whole cortège of horse and foot, running along the bank and cheering the boats. Take care of yourselves! A young colt, frightened by the uproar, is exhibiting some very decided capers, to the manifest discomposure of those around him, and finishes by jumping into the river, fortunately not near enough to the boats to disturb them. His rider maintains his seat throughout, and they emerge somewhat wet, but otherwise apparently uninjured. And whether they were or not, no one cared, for the leading boats were now rounding the upper corner of the Reach. On they come at a good rate, the Caius men taking it quite easy, and pulling leisurely, as much as to say, Whats the use of hurrying ourselves for them? Indeed the First Trinity had lost half a length, and were therefore in some danger themselves.
Caius passed me, for I was far from a good runner, so did the two Trinity boats and Maudlin (Magdalen), when suddenly there uprose a mighty shout, Trinity! Trinity! Go it, Trinity! and there was First Trinity shooting forward with a magical impulse, away, away from the threatening Third Trinity, and up, up, up to the head boat. The poor Caius crew looked like men in a nightmare: they pulled without making any headway, while the others kept fast overhauling them at every stroke. The partisans of the respective boats filled the air with their shouts. Now Keys! Now Trinity! Why dont you pull, Keys? Now you have em, Trinity! Keys! Trinity! Trinity! Nows your chance, Keys! Save yourself, Keys! And it did really appear as if the Caius men would save themselves, for, with a sudden, mighty effort, they made a great addition to their boats velocity in a very short time. I began to fear they had been playing possum all the while, and could walk away from us after all.
The uproar and confusion of the scene were now at their height. Men and horses ran promiscuously along the bank, occasionally interfering with each other. A dozen persons might have been trampled under foot, or sent into the Cam, and no one would have stopped to render them assistance. The coxswain of the Caius boat looked the very personification of excitement; he bent over at every pull till his nose almost touched the strokes arm, cheering his men meantime at the top of his voice. The shouts rose louder and louder. Pull, Trinity! Pull, Keys! Go it, Trinity! Keep on, Keys! Pull, stroke! Now, No. 3! Lay out, Greenwell!for the friends of the different rowers began to appeal to them individually. Thats it, Trinity! Where are you, Keys? Hurrah, Trinity! inity!! inity!!! and the outcries of the Trinitarians waxed more and more boisterous and triumphant, as our men, with their long slashing strokes, urged their boat closer and closer upon the enemy.
Not more than half a foot now intervened between the bow of the pursuer and the stern of the pursued; still the Caius crew pulled with all their might. They were determined to die game at least, or perhaps they still entertained some hope of making their escape. Boats have occasionally run a mile almost touching. But there is no more chance for them. One tremendous pull from the First Trinity, and half that distance has disappeared. They all but touch. Another such stroke, and you are aboard of them. Hurrah! a bump! a bump!
Not so! The Caius steersman is on the lookout, and with a skilful inclination of the rudder he has made his boat fall offjust the least bit in the worldbut enough to prevent their contact. The First Trinity overlapped, but did not touch.
Exulting shouts from the shore hailed the success of the dexterous evasion. Enraged at being thus baffled, the pursuers threw all their strength into a couple of strokes. The Caius men, knowing that this was their last chance, were doing their best to get away, but the other boat was upon them in a moment. Again the skill of the coxswain was brought into play, and again the pursuing boat overlapped without touching. But it was now clear that they were only delaying their fate, not averting it, for the Trinity men, going four feet for their three, were running them into the further bank in a way that left no room for change of course. Hurrah for Trinity! shouted I, in the fulness of my exultation, and at that moment a horse walked against me and nearly threw me off the bank.