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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.
“Do you make out what the change is?” says a backer of Oriel to his friend in the like predicament.
“ 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.”
“ Pooh,” says the other,“ did you ever know one man win a
“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.
Now their dark friend of yesterday came 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 0. 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.
“ 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?"
“ Hardy,” answers the captain in the same tone; “it's his first night in the boat.”
“I know that,” replies the coxswain; "I never saw him row before yesterday. He's the fellow who sculls in that brown skiff, is n't he?"
“ Yes, and I think he 'll do ; keep your eye on him."
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.
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.
“ 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.”
“ So I thought,” said Drysdale ; “but I could n'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.”
May it come speedily,” said Blake, and then settled himself in his seat.
“ Eyes in the boat - mind now, steady all, watch the stroke and don't quicken.”
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.
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 0. 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.
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.
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.
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 lightheeled gentry yet, as he did before.
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, sometime 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, 't is 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 bis 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.
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 beard 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.
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.
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.
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.
“Well rowed, boys,” says Jervis turning round to his crew, as they lay panting on their oars.
“ Well rowed, five,” says Miller, who, eren in the hour of such a triumph, is not inclined to be general in laudation.
“ 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.”
“I don't think you 'll get him to row, from what I hear,” answers the other.
“ Then he must be handcuffed and carried into the boat by force,"
says the coxswain 0. U. B.; " why is not the pressgang an institution in this university ?”