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   Chapter 13 THE FIRST BUMP

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 29560

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

"What's the time, Smith?"

"Half-past three, old fellow," answered Diogenes, looking at his watch.

"I never knew a day go so slowly," said Tom; "isn't it time to go down to the boats?"

"Not by two hours and more, old fellow-can't you take a book, or something to keep you quiet? You won't be fit for anything by six o'clock, if you go on worrying like this." And so Diogenes turned himself to his flute, and blew away to all appearances as composedly as if it had been the first week of term, though, if the truth must be told, it was all he could do not to get up and wander about in a feverish and distracted state, for Tom's restlessness infected him.

Diogenes' whole heart was in the college boat; and so, though he had pulled dozens of races in his time, he was almost as nervous as a freshman on this the first day of the races. Tom, all unconscious of the secret discomposure of the other, threw himself into a chair and looked at him with wonder and envy. The flute went "toot, toot, toot," till he could stand it no longer. So he got up and went to the window, and, leaning out, looked up and down the street for some minutes in a purposeless sort of fashion, staring hard at everybody and everything, but unconscious all the time that he was doing so. He would not have been able in fact, to answer Diogenes a word, had not that worthy inquired of him what he had seen, when he presently drew in his head and returned to his fidgety ramblings about the room.

"How hot the sun is! but there's a stiff breeze from the south-east. I hope it will go down before the evening, don't you?"

"Yes, this wind will make it very rough below the Gut. Mind you feather high now at starting."

"I hope to goodness I sha'n't catch a crab," said Tom.

"Don't think about it, old fellow; that's your best plan."

"But I can't think of anything else," said Tom. "What the deuce is the good of telling a fellow not to think about it?"

Diogenes apparently had nothing particular to reply, for he put his flute to his mouth again; and at the sound of the "toot, toot" Tom caught up his gown and fled into the quadrangle.

The crew had had their early dinner of steaks and chops, stale bread, and a glass and a half of old beer a piece at two o'clock, in the Captain's rooms. The current theory of training at that time was-as much meat as you could eat, the more underdone the better, and the smallest amount of drink upon which you could manage to live. Two pints in the twenty-four hours was all that most boat's crews that pretended to train at all were allowed, and for the last fortnight it had been the nominal allowance of the St. Ambrose crew. The discomfort of such a diet in the hot summer months, when you were at the same time taking regular and violent exercise, was something very serious. Outraged human nature rebelled against it; and though they did not admit it in public, there were very few men who did not rush to their water bottles for relief, more or less often, according to the development of their bumps of conscientiousness and obstinacy. To keep to the diet at all strictly involved a very respectable amount of physical endurance. Our successors have found out the unwisdom of this, as of other old superstitions; and that in order to get a man into training for a boat-race now-a-days, it is not of the first importance to keep him in a constant state of consuming thirst, and the restlessness of body and sharpness of temper which thirst generally induces.

Tom appreciated the honor of being in the boat in his first year so keenly, that he had almost managed to keep to his training allowance, and consequently, now that the eventful day had arrived, was in a most uncomfortable frame of body and disagreeable frame of mind.

He fled away from Diogenes' flute, but found no rest. He tried Drysdale. That hero was lying on his back on his sofa playing with Jack, and only increased Tom's thirst and soured his temper by the viciousness of his remarks on boating, and everything and person connected therewith; above all, on Miller, who had just come up, had steered them the day before, and pronounced the crew generally, and Drysdale in particular, "not half trained."

Blake's oak was sported, as usual. Tom looked in at the Captain's door, but found him hard at work reading, and so carried himself off; and, after a vain hunt after others of the crew, and even trying to sit down and read, first a novel, then a play of Shakespeare, with no success whatever, wandered away out of the college, and found himself in five minutes, by a natural and irresistible attraction, on the university barge.

There were half a dozen men or so reading the papers, and a group or two discussing the coming races. Amongst other things the chances of St. Ambrose's making a bump the first night were weighed. Every one joining in praising the stroke, but there were great doubts whether the crew could live up to it. Tom carried himself on to the top of the barge to get out of hearing, for listening made his heart beat and his throat drier than ever. He stood on the top and looked right away down to the Gut, the strong wind blowing his gown about. Not even a pair oar was to be seen; the great event of the evening made the river a solitude at this time of day. Only one or two skiffs were coming home, impelled by reading men, who took their constitutionals on the water, and were coming in to be in time for afternoon chapel. The fastest and best of these soon came near enough for Tom to recognize Hardy's stroke; so he left the barge and went down to meet the servitor at his landing, and accompanied him to the St. Ambrose dressing-room.

"Well, how do you feel for the race to-night?" said Hardy, as he dried his neck and face, which he had been sluicing with cold water, looking as hardy and bright as a racer on Derby day.

"Oh, wretched! I'm afraid I shall break down" said Tom, and pouring out some of his doubts and miseries. Hardy soon comforted him greatly; and by the time they were half across Christchurch meadow, he was quite in heart again. For he knew how well Hardy understood rowing, and what a sound judge he was; and it was therefore cheering to hear that he thought they were certainly the second best, if not the best boat on the river; and that they would be sure to make some bumps unless they had accidents.

"But that's just what I fear so," said Tom. "I'm afraid I shall make some awful blunder."

"Not you!" said Hardy; "only remember. Don't you fancy you can pull the boat by yourself, and go to trying to do it. There's where young oars fail. If you keep thorough good time you'll be pretty sure to be doing your share of work. Time is everything, almost."

"I'll be sure to think of that," said Tom; and they entered St. Ambrose just as the chapel bell was going down; and he went to chapel and then to hall, sitting by and talking for companionship while the rest dined.

And so at last the time slipped away, and the Captain and Miller mustered them at the gates and walked off to the boats. A dozen other crews were making their way in the same direction, and half the undergraduates of Oxford streamed along with them. The banks of the river were crowded; and the punts plied rapidly backwards and forwards, carrying loads of men over to the Berkshire side. The university barge, and all the other barges, were decked with flags, and the band was playing lively airs as the St. Ambrose crew reached the scene of action.

No time was lost in the dressing-room, and in two minutes they were all standing in flannel trousers and silk jerseys at the landing-place.

"You had better keep your jackets on," said the Captain; "we sha'n't be off yet."

"There goes Brazen-nose."

"They look like work, don't they?"

"The black and yellow seems to slip along so fast. They're no end of good colors. I wish our new boat was black."

"Hang her colors, if she's only stiff in the back, and don't dip."

"Well, she didn't dip yesterday; at least, the men on the bank said so."

"There go Baliol, and Oriel, and University."

"By Jove, we shall be late! Where's Miller?"

"In the shed, getting the boat out. Look, here's Exeter."

The talk of the crew was silenced for the moment as every man looked eagerly at the Exeter boat. The Captain nodded to Jervis with a grim smile as they paddled gently by.

Then the talk began again, "How do you think she goes?"

"Not so badly. They're very strong in the middle of the boat."

"Not a bit of it; it's all lumber."

"You'll see. They're better trained than we are. They look as fine as stars."

"So they ought. They've pulled seven miles to our five for the last month, I'm sure."

"Then we sha'n't bump them."

"Why not?"

"Don't you know that the value of products consist in the quantity of labor which goes to produce them? Product pace over course from Iffley up. Labor expended, Exeter 7; St. Ambrose, 5. You see it is not in the nature of things that we should bump them-Q.E.D."

"What moonshine! as if ten miles behind their stroke are worth two behind Jervis!"

"My dear fellow, it isn't my moonshine; you must settle the matter with the philosophers. I only apply a universal law to a particular case."

Tom, unconscious of the pearls of economic lore which were being poured out for the benefit of the crew, was watching the Exeter eight as it glided away towards the Cherwell. He thought they seemed to keep horribly good time.

"Halloa, Drysdale; look, there's Jack going across in one of the punts."

"Of course it is. You don't suppose he would go down to see the race."

"Why won't Miller let us start? Almost all the boats are off."

"There's plenty of time. We may just as well be up here as dawdling about the bank at Iffley."

"We sha'n't go down till the last; Miller never lets us get out down below."

"Well, come; here's the boat, at last."

The new boat now emerged from its shed, guided steadily to where they were standing by Miller and the waterman. Then the coxswain got out and called for bow, who stepped forward.

"Mind how you step now, there are no bottom boards, said Miller.

"Shall I take my jacket?"

"Yes; you had better all go down in jackets in this wind. I've sent a man down to bring them back. Now two."

"Aye, aye!" said Drysdale, stepping forward. Then came Tom's turn, and soon the boat was manned.

"Now," said Miller, taking his place, "are all your stretchers right?"

"I should like a little more grease on my rollocks."

"I'm taking some down; we'll put it on down below. Are you all right?"


"Then push her off-gently."

The St. Ambrose boat was almost the last, so there were no punts in the way, or other obstructions; and they swung steadily down past the university barge, the top of which was already covered with spectators. Every man in the boat felt as if the eyes of Europe were on him, and pulled in his very best form. Small groups of gownsmen were scattered along the bank in Christchurch meadow, chiefly dons, who were really interested in the races, but, at that time of day, seldom liked to display enthusiasm enough to cross the water and go down to the starting-place. These sombre groups lighted up here and there by the dresses of a few ladies, who were walking up and down, and watching the boats. At the mouth of the Cherwell were moored two punts, in which reclined at their ease some dozen young gentlemen, smoking; several of these were friends of Drysdale's, and hailed him as the boat passed.

"What a fool I am to be here!" he grumbled, in an undertone, casting an envious glance at the punts in their comfortable berth, up under the banks, and out of the wind. "I say, Brown, don't you wish we were well past this on the way up?"

"Silence in the bows?" shouted Miller.

"You devil, how I hate you!" growled Drysdale, half in jest and half in earnest, as they sped along under the willows.

Tom got more comfortable at every stroke, and by the time they reached the Gut began to hope that he should not have a fit or lose all his strength just at the start, or cut a crab, or come to some other unutterable grief, the fear of which had been haunting him all day.

"Here they are at last!-come along now-keep up with them," said Hardy to Grey, as the boat neared the Gut; and the two trotted along downwards, Hardy watching the crew and Grey watching him.

"Hardy, how eager you look!"

"I'd give twenty pounds to be going to pull in the race." Grey shambled on in silence by the side of his big friend, and wished he could understand what it was that moved him so.

As the boat shot into the Gut from under the cover of the

Oxfordshire bank, the wind caught the bows.

"Feather high, now," shouted Miller; and then added in a low voice to the Captain, "It will be ticklish work, starting in this wind."

"Just as bad for all the other boats," answered the Captain.

"Well said, old philosopher!" said Miller. "It's a comfort to steer you; you never make a fellow nervous. I wonder if you ever felt nervous yourself, now?"

"Can't say," said the Captain. "Here's our post; we may as well turn."

"Easy, bow side-now two and four, pull her round-back water, seven and five!" shouted the coxswain; and the boat's head swung round, and two or three strokes took her into the bank.

Jack instantly made a convulsive attempt to board, but was sternly repulsed, and tumbled backwards into the water.

Hark!-the first gun. The report sent Tom's heart into his mouth again. Several of the boats pushed off at once into the stream; and the crowds of men on the bank began to be agitated, as it were, by the shadow of the coming excitement. The St. Ambrose crew fingered their oars, put a last dash of grease on their rollocks, and settled their feet against the stretchers.

"Shall we push her off?" asked "bow."

"No, I can give you another minute," said Miller, who was sitting, watch in hand, in the stern, "only be smart when I give the word."

The Captain turned on his seat, and looked up the boat. His face was quiet, but full of confidence, which seemed to pass from him into the crew. Tom felt calmer and stronger, he met his eye. "Now mind, boys, don't quicken," he said, cheerily; "four short strokes, to get way on her, and then steady. Here, pass up the lemon."

And he took a sliced lemon out of his pocket, put a small piece into his own mouth, and then handed it to Blake, who followed his example, and passed it on. Each man took a piece; and just as "bow" had secured the end, Miller called out-

"Now, jackets off, and get her head out steadily."

The jackets were thrown on shore, and gathered up by the boatmen in attendance. Th

e crew poised their oars, No. 2 pushing out her head, and the Captain doing the same for the stern. Miller took the starting-rope in his hand.

"How the wind catches her stern," he said; "here, pay out the rope, one of you. No, not you-some fellow with a strong hand. Yes, you'll do," he went on, as Hardy stepped down the bank and took hold of the rope; "let me have it foot by foot as I want it. Not too quick; make the most of it-that'll do. Two and three dip your oars in to give her way."

The rope paid out steadily, and the boat settled to her place. But now the wind rose again, and the stern drifted towards the bank.

"You must back her a bit, Miller, and keep her a little further out, or our oars on stroke side will catch the bank."

"So I see; curse the wind. Back her, one stroke all. Back her, I say!" shouted Miller.

It is no easy matter to get a crew to back her an inch just now, particularly as there are in her two men who have never rowed a race before, except in the torpids, and one who has never rowed a race in his life.

However, back she comes; the starting-rope slackens in Miller's left hand, and the stroke, unshipping his oar, pushes the stern gently out again.

There goes the second gun! one short minute more, and we are off. Short minute, indeed! you wouldn't say so if you were in the boat, with your heart in your mouth, and trembling all over like a man with the palsy. Those sixty seconds before the starting gun in your first race-why, they are a little life-time.

"By Jove, we are drifting in again," said Miller, in horror. The Captain looked grim, but said nothing; it was too late now for him to be unshipping again. "Here, catch hold of the long boat-hook, and fend her off."

Hardy, to whom this was addressed, seized the boat-hook, and, standing with one foot in the water, pressed the end of the boat-hook against the gunwale, at the full stretch of his arm, and so by main force, kept the stern out. There was just room for stroke oars to dip, and that was all. The starting-rope was as taut as a harp-string; will Miller's left hand hold out?

It is an awful moment. But the coxswain, though almost dragged backwards off his seat, is equal to the occasion. He holds his watch in his right hand with the tiller rope.

"Eight seconds more only. Look out for the flash. Remember, all eyes in the boat."

There it comes, at last-the flash of the starting gun. Long before the sound of the report can roll up the river, the whole pent-up life and energy which has been held in leash, as it were, for the last six minutes, is let loose, and breaks away with a bound and a dash which he who has felt it will remember for his life, but the like of which, will he ever feel again? The starting-ropes drop from the coxswains' hands, the oars flash into the water, and gleam on the feather, the spray flies from them, and the boats leap forward.

The crowds on the bank scatter, and rush along, each keeping as near as it may be to its own boat. Some of the men on the towing path, some on the very edge of, often in, the water-some slightly in advance, as if they could help to drag their boat forward-some behind, where they can see the pulling better-but all at full speed, in wild excitement, and shouting at the top of their voices to those on whom the honor of the college is laid.

"Well pulled, all!" "Pick her up there, five!" "You're gaining, every stroke!" "Time in the bows!" "Bravo, St. Ambrose!"

On they rushed by the side of the boats, jostling one another, stumbling, struggling, and panting along.

For a quarter of a mile along the bank the glorious maddening hurly-burly extends, and rolls up the side of the stream.

For the first ten strokes Tom was in too great fear of making a mistake to feel or hear or see. His whole soul was glued to the back of the man before him, his one thought to keep time, and get his strength into the stroke. But as the crew settled down into the well known long sweep, what we may call consciousness returned; and while every muscle in his body was straining, and his chest heaved, and his heart leapt, every nerve seemed to be gathering new life, and his senses to wake into unwonted acuteness. He caught the scent of the wild thyme in the air, and found room in his brain to wonder how it could have got there, as he had never seen the plant near the river, or smelt it before. Though his eye never wandered from the back of Diogenes, he seemed to see all things at once. The boat behind, which seemed to be gaining-it was all he could do to prevent himself from quickening on the stroke as he fancied that-the eager face of Miller, with his compressed lips, and eyes fixed so earnestly ahead that Tom could almost feel the glance passing over his right shoulder; the flying banks and the shouting crowd; see them with his bodily eyes he could not, but he knew nevertheless that Grey had been upset and nearly rolled down the bank into the water in the first hundred yards, that Jack was bounding and scrambling and barking along by the very edge of the stream; above all, he was just as well aware as if he had been looking at it, of a stalwart form in cap and gown, bounding along, brandishing the long boat-hook, and always keeping just opposite the boat; and amid all the Babel of voices, and the dash and pulse of the stroke, and the laboring of his own breathing, he heard Hardy's voice coming to him again and again, and clear as if there had been no other sound in the air, "Steady, two! steady! well pulled! steady, steady!" The voice seemed to give him strength and keep him to his work. And what work it was! he had had many a hard pull in the last six weeks, but "never aught like this."

But it can't last for ever; men's muscles are not steel, or their lungs bull's hide, and hearts can't go on pumping a hundred miles an hour without bursting. The St. Ambrose's boat is well away from the boat behind, there is a great gap between the accompanying crowds; and now, as they near the Gut, she hangs for a moment or two in hand, though the roar from the bank grows louder and louder, and Tom is already aware that the St. Ambrose crowd is melting into the one ahead of them.

"We must be close to Exeter!" The thought flashes into him, and it would seem into the rest of the crew at the same moment. For, all at once, the strain seems taken off their arms again; there is no more drag; she springs to the stroke as she did at the start; and Miller's face which had darkened for a few seconds, lightens up again.

Miller's face and attitude are a study. Coiled up into the smallest possible space, his chin almost resting on his knees, his hands close to his sides, firmly but lightly feeling the rudder, as a good horseman handles the mouth of a free-going hunter,-if a coxswain could make a bump by his own exertions, surely he will do it. No sudden jerks of the St. Ambrose rudder will you see, watch as you will from the bank; the boat never hangs through fault of his, but easily and gracefully rounds every point. "You're gaining! you're gaining!" he now and then mutters to the Captain, who responds with a wink, keeping his breath for other matters. Isn't he grand, the Captain, as he comes forward like lightening, stroke after stroke, his back flat, his teeth set, his whole frame working from the hips with the regularity of a machine? As the space still narrows, the eyes of the fiery little coxswain flash with excitement, but he is far too good a judge to hurry the final effort before victory is safe in his grasp.

The two crowds mingle now, and no mistake; and the shouts come all in a heap over the water. "Now, St. Ambrose, six strokes more." "Now, Exeter, you're gaining; pick her up." "Mind the Gut, Exeter." "Bravo, St. Ambrose." The water rushes by, still eddying from the strokes of the boat ahead. Tom fancies now that he can hear their oars, and the working of their rudder, and the voice of their coxswain. In another moment both boats are in the Gut, and a perfect storm of shouts reaches them from the crowd, as it rushes madly off to the left of the footbridge, amidst which "Oh, well steered, well steered, St. Ambrose!" is the prevailing cry. Then Miller, motionless as a statue till now, lifts his right hand and whirls the tassel round his head; "Give it her now, boys; six strokes and we are into them." Old Jervis lays down that great broad back, and lashes his oar through the water with the might of a giant, the crew caught him up in another stroke, the tight new boat answers to the spurt, and Tom feels a little shock behind him, and then a grating sound, as Miller shouts "Unship oars, bow and three," and the nose of the St. Ambrose boat glides quietly up the side of the Exeter, till it touches their stroke oar.

"Take care what you're coming to." It is the coxswain of the bumped boat who speaks.

Tom, looking round, finds himself within a foot or two of him; and, being utterly unable to contain his joy, and unwilling to exhibit it before the eyes of a gallant rival, turns away towards the shore, and begins telegraphing to Hardy.

"Now then, what are you at there in the bows? Cast her off quick. Come, look alive! Push across at once out of the way of the other boats."

"I congratulate you, Jervis," says the Exeter stroke as the St. Ambrose boat shot past him. "Do it again next race and I sha'n't care."

"We were within three lengths of Brazen-nose when we bumped," says the all-observant Miller in a low voice.

"All right," answers the Captain; "Brazen-nose isn't so strong as usual. We sha'n't have much trouble there, but a tough job up above, I take it."

"Brazen-nose was better steered than Exeter."

"They muffed it in the Gut, eh?" said the Captain. "I thought so by the shouts."

"Yes, we were pressing them a little down below, and their coxswain kept looking over his shoulder. He was in the Gut before he knew it, and had to pull his left hand hard or they would have fouled the Oxfordshire corner. That stopped their way, and in we went."

"Bravo; and how well we started too."

"Yes, thanks to that Hardy. It was touch and go though; I couldn't have held that rope two seconds more."

"How did our fellows work; she dragged a good deal below the


Miller looked somewhat serious, but even he cannot be finding fault just now. For the first step is gained, the first victory won; and, as Homer sometimes nods, so Miller relaxes the sternness of his rule. The crew, as soon as they have found their voices again, laugh and talk, and answer the congratulations of their friends, as the boat slips along close to the towing path on the Berks side, "easy all," almost keeping pace nevertheless with the lower boats, which are racing up under the willows on the Oxfordshire side. Jack, after one or two feints, makes a frantic bound into the water, and is hauled dripping into the boat by Drysdale, unchid by Miller, but to the intense disgust of Diogenes, whose pantaloons and principles are alike outraged by the proceeding. He-the Cato of the oar-scorns to relax the strictness of his code even after victory won. Neither word nor look does he cast to the exhulting St. Ambrosians on the bank; a twinkle in his eye and a subdued chuckle or two, alone betray that though an oarsman he is mortal. Already he revolves in his mind the project of an early walk under a few pea-coats, not being quite satisfied (conscientious old boy!) that he tried his stretcher enough in that final spurt, and thinking that there must be an extra pound of flesh on him somewhere or other which did the mischief.

"I say, Brown," said Drysdale, "how do you feel?"

"All right," said Tom; "I never felt jollier in my life."

"By Jove, though, it was an awful grind; didn't you wish yourself well out of it below the Gut?"

"No, nor you either."

"Didn't I? I was awfully baked, my throat is like a limekiln yet.

What did you think about?"

"Well, about keeping time, I think," said Tom, "but I can't remember much."

"I only kept on by thinking how I hated those devils in the Exeter boat, and how done up they must be, and hoping their NO.2 felt like having a fit."

At this moment they came opposite the Cherwell. The leading boat was just passing the winning-post, off the university barge, and the band struck up the "Conquering Hero," with a crash. And while a mighty sound of shouts, murmurs, and music went up into the evening sky, Miller shook the tiller-ropes again, the Captain shouted, "Now then, pick her up," and the St. Ambrose boat shot up between the swarming banks at racing pace to her landing-place, the lion of the evening.

Dear readers of the gentler sex! you, I know, will pardon the enthusiasm which stirs our pulses, now in sober middle age, as we call up again the memories of this the most exciting sport of our boy hood (for we were but boys then, after all). You will pardon, though I fear hopelessly unable to understand, the above sketch; your sons and brothers will tell you it could not have been less technical.

For you, male readers, who have never handled an oar,-what shall I say to you? You at least, I hope, in some way-in other contests of one kind or another-have felt as we felt, and have striven as we strove. You ought to understand and sympathize with us in all our boating memories. Oh, how fresh and sweet they are! Above all, that one of the gay little Henley town, the carriage-crowded bridge, the noble river reach, the giant poplars, which mark the critical point of the course-the roaring column of "undergrads," light blue and dark purple, Cantab and Oxonian, alike and yet how different,-hurling along together, and hiding the towing-path-the clang of Henley church-bells-the cheering, the waving of embroidered handkerchiefs, and glancing of bright eyes, the ill-concealed pride of fathers, open delight and exultation of mothers and sisters-the levee in the town-hall when the race was rowed, the great cup full of champagne (inn champagne, but we were not critical)-the chops, the steaks, the bitter beer-but we run into anti-climax-remember, we were boys then, and bear with us if you cannot sympathize.

And you, old companions, [Greek text] thranitai, benchers, (of the gallant eight-oar), now seldom met, but never-forgotten, lairds, squires, soldiers, merchants, lawyers, grave J.P.'s, graver clergymen, gravest bishops (for of two bishops at least does our brotherhood boast), I turn for a moment, from my task, to reach to you the right hand of fellowship from these pages, and empty the solemn pewter-trophy of hard-won victory-to your health and happiness.

Surely none the worse Christians and citizens are ye for your involuntary failing of muscularity!

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