Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Boat Race
By Thomas Hughes (1822–1896)
From ‘Tom Brown at Oxford’

SATURDAY night came, and brought with it a most useful though unpalatable lesson to the St.-Ambrosians. The Oriel boat was manned chiefly by old oars, seasoned in many a race, and not liable to panic when hard pressed. They had a fair though not a first-rate stroke, and a good coxswain: experts remarked that they were rather too heavy for their boat, and that she dipped a little when they put on anything like a severe spurt; but on the whole they were by no means the sort of crew you could just run into hand over hand. So Miller and Diogenes preached, and so the Ambrosians found out to their cost.  1
  They had the pace of the other boat, and gained as usual a boat’s-length before the Gut: but first those two fatal corners were passed, and then other well-remembered spots where former bumps had been made, and still Miller made no sign; on the contrary, he looked gloomy and savage. The St.-Ambrosian shouts from the shore, too, changed from the usual exultant peals into something like a quiver of consternation, while the air was rent with the name and laudations of “Little Oriel.”  2
  Long before the Cherwell, Drysdale was completely baked (he had played truant the day before and dined at the Weirs, where he had imbibed much dubious hock), but he from old habit managed to keep time. Tom and the other young oars got flurried, and quickened; the boat dragged, there was no life left in her; and though they managed just to hold their first advantage, could not put her a foot nearer the stern of the Oriel boat, which glided past the winning-post a clear boat’s-length ahead of her pursuers, and with a crew much less distressed.  3
  Such races must tell on strokes; and even Jervis, who had pulled magnificently throughout, was very much done at the close, and leaned over his oar with a swimming in his head and an approach to faintness, and was scarcely able to see for a minute or so. Miller’s indignation knew no bounds, but he bottled it up till he had manœuvred the crew into their dressing-room by themselves, Jervis having stopped below. Then he let out, and did not spare them. “They would kill their captain, whose little finger was worth the whole of them; they were disgracing the college; three or four of them had neither heart nor head nor pluck.”  4
  They all felt that this was unjust; for after all, had they not brought the boat up to the second place? Poor Diogenes sat in a corner and groaned; he forgot to prefix “old fellow” to the few observations he made. Blake had great difficulty in adjusting his necktie before the glass; he merely remarked in a pause of the objurgation, “In faith, coxswain, these be very bitter words.”  5
  Tom and most of the others were too much out of heart to resist; but at last Drysdale fired up:—  6
  “You’ve no right to be so savage, that I can see,” he said, stopping the low whistle suddenly in which he was indulging, as he sat on the corner of the table. “You seem to think No. 2 the weakest out of several weak places in the boat.”  7
  “Yes, I do,” said Miller.  8
  “Then this honorable member,” said Drysdale, getting off the table, “seeing that his humble efforts are unappreciated, thinks it best for the public service to place his resignation in the hands of your Coxswainship.”  9
  “Which my Coxswainship is graciously pleased to accept,” replied Miller.  10
  “Hurrah for a roomy punt and a soft cushion next racing night! It’s almost worth while to have been rowing all this time, to realize the sensations I shall feel when I see you fellows passing the Cherwell on Tuesday.”  11
  “Suave est, it’s what I’m partial to, mari magno, in the last reach, a terra, from the towing-path, alterius magnum spectare laborem, to witness the tortures of you wretched beggars in the boat. I’m obliged to translate for Drysdale, who never learned Latin,” said Blake, finishing his tie and turning to the company. There was an awkward silence. Miller was chafing inwardly, and running over in his mind what was to be done; and nobody else seemed quite to know what ought to happen next, when the door opened and Jervis came in.  12
  “Congratulate me, my captain,” said Drysdale: “I’m well out of it at last.”  13
  Jervis pished and pshawed a little at hearing what had happened, but his presence acted like oil on the waters. The moment that the resignation was named, Tom’s thoughts had turned to Hardy. Now was the time: he had such confidence in the man, that the idea of getting him in for the next race entirely changed the aspect of affairs to him, and made him feel as “bumptious” again as he had done in the morning. So with this idea in his head, he hung about till the captain had made his toilet, and joined himself to him and Miller as they walked up.  14
  “Well, what are we to do now?” said the captain.  15
  “That’s just what you have to settle,” said Miller: “you have been up all the term, and know the men’s pulling better than I.”  16
  “I suppose we must press somebody from the torpid. Let me see, there’s Burton.”  17
  “He rolls like a porpoise,” interrupted Miller positively: “impossible.”  18
  “Stewart might do, then.”  19
  “Never kept time for three strokes in his life,” said Miller.  20
  “Well, there are no better men,” said the captain.  21
  “Then we may lay our account to stopping where we are, if we don’t even lose a place,” said Miller.
  “Dust unto dust; what must be, must;
If you can’t get crumb, you’d best eat crust,”
said the captain.
  “It’s all very well talking coolly now,” said Miller; “but you’ll kill yourself trying to bump, and there are three more nights.”  23
  “Hardy would row if you asked him, I’m sure,” said Tom.  24
  The captain looked at Miller, who shook his head. “I don’t think it,” he said: “I take him to be a shy bird that won’t come to everybody’s whistle. We might have had him two years ago, I believe—I wish we had.”  25
  “I always told you so,” said Jervis; “at any rate, let’s try him. He can but say no, and I don’t think he will; for you see he has been at the starting-place every night, and as keen as a freshman all the time.”  26
  “I’m sure he won’t,” said Tom: “I know he would give anything to pull.”  27
  “You had better go to his rooms and sound him,” said the captain; “Miller and I will follow in half an hour.” We have already heard how Tom’s mission prospered.  28
  The next day, at a few minutes before two o’clock, the St. Ambrose crew, including Hardy, with Miller (who was a desperate and indefatigable pedestrian) for leader, crossed Magdalen Bridge. At five they returned to college, having done a little over fifteen miles, fair heel-and-toe walking, in the interval. The afternoon had been very hot, and Miller chuckled to the captain, “I don’t think there will be much trash left in any of them after that. That fellow Hardy is as fine as a race-horse; and did you see, he never turned a hair all the way.”  29
  The crew dispersed to their rooms, delighted with the performance now that it was over, and feeling that they were much the better for it, though they all declared it had been harder work than any race they had yet pulled. It would have done a trainer’s heart good to have seen them, some twenty minutes afterward, dropping into hall (where they were allowed to dine on Sundays, on the joint), fresh from cold baths, and looking ruddy and clear, and hard enough for anything.  30
  Again on Monday, not a chance was lost. The St. Ambrose boat started soon after one o’clock for Abingdon. They swung steadily down the whole way, and back again to Sandford without a single spurt; Miller generally standing in the stern, and preaching above all things steadiness and time. From Sandford up they were accompanied by half a dozen men or so, who ran up the bank watching them. The struggle for the first place on the river was creating great excitement in the rowing world; and these were some of the most keen connoisseurs, who, having heard that St. Ambrose had changed a man, were on the lookout to satisfy themselves as to how it would work. The general opinion was veering round in favor of Oriel: changes so late in the races, and at such a critical moment, were looked upon as very damaging.  31
  Foremost among the runners on the bank was a wiry dark man, with sanguine complexion, who went with a peculiar long low stride, keeping his keen eye well on the boat. Just above Kennington Island, Jervis, noticing this particular spectator for the first time, called on the crew, and quickening his stroke, took them up the reach at racing pace. As they lay in Iffley Lock the dark man appeared above them, and exchanged a few words and a good deal of dumb show with the captain and Miller, and then disappeared.  32
  From Iffley up they went steadily again. On the whole, Miller seemed to be in very good spirits in the dressing-room: he thought the boat trimmed better and went better than she had ever done before, and complimented Blake particularly for the ease with which he had changed sides. They all went up in high spirits, calling on their way at “The Choughs” for one glass of old ale round, which Miller was graciously pleased to allow. Tom never remembered till after they were out again that Hardy had never been there before, and felt embarrassed for a moment; but it soon passed off. A moderate dinner and early to bed finished the day; and Miller was justified in his parting remark to the captain: “Well, if we don’t win we can comfort ourselves that we haven’t dropped a stitch this last two days, at any rate.”  33
  Then the eventful day arose which Tom and many another man felt was to make or mar St. Ambrose. It was a glorious early summer day, without a cloud, scarcely a breath of air stirring. “We shall have a fair start, at any rate,” was the general feeling. We have already seen what a throat-drying, nervous business the morning and afternoon of a race day is, and must not go over the same ground more than we can help; so we will imagine the St. Ambrose boat down at the starting-place, lying close to the towing-path, just before the first gun.  34
  There is a much greater crowd than usual opposite the two first boats. By this time most of the other boats have found their places, for there is not much chance of anything very exciting down below; so, besides the men of Oriel and St. Ambrose (who muster to-night of all sorts, the fastest of the fast and slowest of the slow having been by this time shamed into something like enthusiasm), many of other colleges, whose boats have no chance of bumping or being bumped, flock to the point of attraction.  35
  “Do you make out what the change is?” says a backer of Oriel to his friend in the like predicament.  36
  “Yes: they’ve got a new No. 5, don’t you see? and by George, I don’t like his looks,” answered his friend: “awfully long and strong in the arm, and well ribbed up. A devilish awkward customer. I shall go and try to get a hedge.”  37
  “Pooh!” says the other, “did you ever know one man win a race?”  38
  “Ay, that I have,” says his friend, and walks off toward the Oriel crowd to take five to four on Oriel in half-sovereigns, if he can get it.  39
  Now their dark friend of yesterday comes up at a trot, and pulls up close to the captain, with whom he is evidently dear friends. He is worth looking at, being coxswain of the O. U. B.; the best steerer, runner, and swimmer in Oxford; amphibious himself, and sprung from an amphibious race. His own boat is in no danger, so he has left her to take care of herself. He is on the lookout for recruits for the University crew, and no recruiting sergeant has a sharper eye for the sort of stuff he requires.  40
  “What’s his name?” he says in a low tone to Jervis, giving a jerk with his head toward Hardy. “Where did you get him?”  41
  “Hardy,” answers the captain in the same tone; “it’s his first night in the boat.”  42
  “I know that,” replies the coxswain: “I never saw him row before yesterday. He’s the fellow who sculls in that brown skiff, isn’t he?”  43
  “Yes, and I think he’ll do; keep your eye on him.”  44
  The coxswain nods as if he were pretty much of the same mind, and examines Hardy with the eye of a connoisseur, pretty much as the judge at an agricultural show looks at the prize bull. Hardy is tightening the strap of his stretcher, and all unconscious of the compliments which are being paid him. The great authority seems satisfied with his inspection, grins, rubs his hands, and trots off to the Oriel boat to make comparisons.  45
  Just as the first gun is heard, Grey sidles nervously to the front of the crowd as if he were doing something very audacious, and draws Hardy’s attention, exchanging sympathizing nods with him, but saying nothing,—for he knows not what to say,—and then disappearing again in the crowd.  46
  “Hollo, Drysdale, is that you?” says Blake, as they push off from the shore. “I thought you were going to take it easy in a punt.”  47
  “So I thought,” said Drysdale; “but I couldn’t keep away, and here I am. I shall run up; and mind, if I see you within ten feet, and cocksure to win, I’ll give a view halloo. I’ll be bound you shall hear it.”  48
  “May it come speedily,” said Blake, and then settled himself in his seat.  49
  “Eyes in the boat—mind now, steady all; watch the stroke and don’t quicken.”  50
  These are Miller’s last words; every faculty of himself and the crew being now devoted to getting a good start. This is no difficult matter, as the water is like glass, and the boat lies lightly on it, obeying the slightest dip of the oars of bow and two, who just feel the water twice or thrice in the last minute. Then, after a few moments of breathless hush on the bank, the last gun is fired and they are off.  51
  The same scene of mad excitement ensues, only tenfold more intense, as almost the whole interest of the races is to-night concentrated on the two head boats and their fate. At every gate there is a jam, and the weaker vessels are shoved into the ditches, upset, and left unnoticed. The most active men, including the O. U. B. coxswain, shun the gates altogether and take the big ditches in their stride, making for the long bridges, that they may get quietly over these and be safe for the best part of the race. They know that the critical point of the struggle will be near the finish.  52
  Both boats make a beautiful start; and again, as before in the first dash, the St. Ambrose pace tells, and they gain their boat’s-length before first winds fail: then they settle down for a long, steady effort. Both crews are rowing comparatively steady, reserving themselves for the tug of war up above. Thus they pass the Gut, and so those two treacherous corners, the scene of countless bumps, into the wider water beyond, up under the willows.  53
  Miller’s face is decidedly hopeful; he shows no sign, indeed, but you can see that he is not the same man as he was at this place in the last race. He feels that to-day the boat is full of life, and that he can call on his crew with hopes of an answer. His well-trained eye also detects that while both crews are at full stretch, his own, instead of losing as it did on the last night, is now gaining inch by inch on Oriel. The gain is scarcely perceptible to him even; from the bank it is quite imperceptible: but there it is; he is surer and surer of it, as one after another the willows are left behind.  54
  And now comes the pinch. The Oriel captain is beginning to be conscious of the fact which has been dawning on Miller, but will not acknowledge it to himself; and as his coxswain turns the boat’s head gently across the stream, and makes for the Berkshire side and the goal, now full in view, he smiles grimly as he quickens his stroke,—he will shake off these light-heeled gentry yet, as he did before.  55
  Miller sees the move in a moment and signals his captain, and the next stroke St. Ambrose has quickened also; and now there is no mistake about it,—St. Ambrose is creeping up slowly but surely. The boat’s-length lessens to forty feet, thirty feet; surely and steadily lessens. But the race is not lost yet; thirty feet is a short space enough to look at on the water, but a good bit to pick up foot by foot in the last two hundred yards of a desperate struggle. They are over under the Berkshire side now, and there stands up the winning-post, close ahead, all but won. The distance lessens and lessens still, but the Oriel crew stick steadily and gallantly to their work, and will fight every inch of distance to the last. The Orielites on the bank, who are rushing along, sometimes in the water, sometimes out, hoarse, furious, madly alternating between hope and despair, have no reason to be ashamed of a man in the crew. Off the mouth of the Cherwell there is still twenty feet between them. Another minute, and it will be over one way or another. Every man in both crews is now doing his best, and no mistake: tell me which boat holds the most men who can do better than their best at a pinch, who will risk a broken blood-vessel, and I will tell you how it will end. “Hard pounding, gentlemen: let’s see who will pound longest,” the Duke is reported to have said at Waterloo, and won. “Now, Tummy, lad, ’tis thou or I,” Big Ben said as he came up to the last round of his hardest fight, and won. Is there a man of that temper in either crew to-night? If so, now’s his time. For both coxswains have called on their men for the last effort; Miller is whirling the tassel of his right-hand tiller rope round his head, like a wiry little lunatic; from the towing-path, from Christ Church meadow, from the rows of punts, from the clustered tops of the barges, comes a roar of encouragement and applause, and the band, unable to resist the impulse, breaks with a crash into the ‘Jolly Young Waterman,’ playing two bars to the second. A bump in the Gut is nothing—a few partisans on the towing-path to cheer you, already out of breath; but up here at the very finish, with all Oxford looking on, when the prize is the headship of the river—once in a generation only do men get such a chance.  56
  Who ever saw Jervis not up to his work? The St. Ambrose stroke is glorious. Tom had an atom of go still left in the very back of his head, and at this moment he heard Drysdale’s view halloo above all the din: it seemed to give him a lift, and other men besides in the boat, for in another six strokes the gap is lessened and St. Ambrose has crept up to ten feet, and now to five, from the stern of Oriel. Weeks afterward Hardy confided to Tom that when he heard that view halloo he seemed to feel the muscles of his arms and legs turn into steel, and did more work in the last twenty strokes than in any other forty in the earlier part of the race.  57
  Another fifty yards and Oriel is safe; but the look on the captain’s face is so ominous that their coxswain glances over his shoulder. The bow of St. Ambrose is within two feet of their rudder. It is a moment for desperate expedients. He pulls his left tiller rope suddenly, thereby carrying the stern of his own boat out of the line of the St. Ambrose, and calls on his crew once more: they respond gallantly yet, but the rudder is against them for a moment, and the boat drags. St. Ambrose overlaps. “A bump, a bump!” shout the St.-Ambrosians on shore. “Row on, row on!” screams Miller. He has not yet felt the electric shock, and knows he will miss his bump if the young ones slacken for a moment. A young coxswain would have gone on making shots at the stern of the Oriel boat, and so have lost.  58
  A bump now and no mistake: the bow of the St. Ambrose boat jams the oar of the Oriel stroke, and the two boats pass the winning-post with the way that was on them when the bump was made. So near a shave was it.  59
  To describe the scene on the bank is beyond me. It was a hurly-burly of delirious joy, in the midst of which took place a terrific combat between Jack and the Oriel dog,—a noble black bull terrier belonging to the college in general, and no one in particular,—who always attended the races and felt the misfortune keenly. Luckily, they were parted without worse things happening; for though the Oriel men were savage, and not disinclined for a jostle, the milk of human kindness was too strong for the moment in their adversaries, and they extricated themselves from the crowd, carrying off Crib, their dog, and looking straight before them into vacancy.  60
  “Well rowed, boys,” says Jervis, turning round to his crew, as they lay panting on their oars.  61
  “Well rowed, five,” says Miller, who, even in the hour of such a triumph, is not inclined to be general in laudation.  62
  “Well rowed, five,” is echoed from the bank: it is that cunning man, the recruiting sergeant. “Fatally well rowed,” he adds to a comrade, with whom he gets into one of the punts to cross to Christ Church meadow: “we must have him in the University crew.”  63
  “I don’t think you’ll get him to row, from what I hear,” answers the other.  64
  “Then he must be handcuffed and carried into the boat by force,” says the coxswain O. U. B.: “why is not the press gang an institution in this university?”  65

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