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Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 27779

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05

It was on a Saturday that the St. Ambrose boat made the first bump, described in our last chapter. On the next Saturday, the day-week after the first success, at nine o'clock in the evening, our hero was at the door of Hardy's rooms. He just stopped for one moment outside, with his hand on the lock, looking a little puzzled, but withal pleased, and then opened the door and entered. The little estrangement which there had been between them for some weeks, had passed away since the races had begun. Hardy had thrown himself into the spirit of them so thoroughly, that he had not only regained all his hold on Tom, but had warmed up the whole crew in his favour, and had mollified the martinet Miller himself. It was he who had managed the starting-rope in every race, and his voice from the towing path had come to be looked upon as a safe guide for clapping on or rowing steady. Even Miller, autocrat as he was, had come to listen for it, in confirmation of his own judgment, before calling on the crew for the final effort.

So Tom had recovered his old footing in the servitor's rooms; and when he entered on the night in question did so with the bearing of an intimate friend. Hardy's tea commons were on one end of the table as usual, and he was sitting at the other poring over a book. Tom marched straight up to him, and leant over his shoulder.

"What, here you are at the perpetual grind," he said. "Come; shut up, and give me some tea; I want to talk to you."

Hardy looked up with a grim smile.

"Are you up to a cup of tea?" he said; "look here, I was just reminded of you fellows. Shall I construe for you?"

He pointed with his finger to the open page of the book he was reading. It was the Knights of Aristophanes, and Tom, leaning over his shoulder, read,-

[Greek text] chata chathixion malachoz ina meh tribehz tehn en

Salamint, &c.

After meditating a moment, he burst out; "You hardhearted old ruffian! I come here for sympathy, and the first thing you do is to poke fun at me out of your wretched classics. I've a good mind to clear out and not to do my errand."

"What's a man to do?" said Hardy. "I hold that it's always better to laugh at fortune. What's the use of repining? You have done famously, and second is a capital place on the river."

"Second be hanged!" said Tom. "We mean to be first."

"Well, I hope we may!" said Hardy. "I can tell you nobody felt it more than I-not even old Diogenes-when you didn't make your bump to-night."

"Now you talk like a man, and a Saint Ambrosian," said Tom. "But what do you think? Shall we ever catch them?" and, so saying, he retired to a chair opposite the tea things.

"No," said Hardy; "I don't think we ever shall. I'm very sorry to say it, but they are an uncommonly strong lot, and we have a weak place or two in our crew. I don't think we can do more than we did to-night-at least with the present crew."

"But if we could get a little more strength we might?"

"Yes, I think so. Jervis's stroke is worth two of theirs. A very little more powder would do it."

"Then we must have a little more powder."

"Ay, but how are we to get it? Who can you put in?"

"You!" said Tom, sitting up. "There, now, that's just what I am come about. Drysdale is to go out. Will you pull next race? They all want you to row."

"Do they?" said Hardy, quietly (but Tom could see that his eye sparkled at the notion, though he was too proud to show how much he was pleased); "then they had better come and ask me themselves."

"Well, you cantankerous old party, they're coming, I can tell you!" said Tom in great delight. "The Captain just sent me to break ground, and will be here directly himself. I say now, Hardy," he went on, "don't you say no. I've set my heart upon it. I'm sure we shall bump them if you pull."

"I don't know that," said Hardy, getting up, and beginning to make tea, to conceal the excitement he was in at the idea of rowing; "you see I'm not in training."

"Gammon," said Tom, "you're always in training, and you know it."

"Well," said Hardy, "I can't be in worse than Drysdale. He has been of no use above the Gut these last three nights."

"That's just what Miller says," said Tom, "and here comes the

Captain." There was a knock at the door while he spoke, and

Jervis and Miller entered.

Tom was in a dreadful fidget for the next twenty minutes, and may best be compared to an enthusiastic envoy negotiating a treaty, and suddenly finding his action impeded by the arrival of his principals. Miller was very civil, but not pressing; he seemed to have come more with a view of talking over the present state of things, and consulting upon them, than to enlisting a recruit. Hardy met him more than halfway, and speculated on all sorts of possible issues, without a hint of volunteering himself. But presently Jervis, who did not understand finessing, broke in, and asked Hardy, point blank, to pull in the next race; and when he pleaded want of training, overruled him at once by saying that there was no better training than sculling. So in half an hour all was settled. Hardy was to pull five in the next race, Diogenes was to take Blake's place, at No. 7, and Blake to take Drysdale's oar at No. 2. The whole crew were to go for a long training walk the next day, Sunday, in the afternoon; to go down to Abingdon on Monday, just to get into swing in their new places, and then on Tuesday to abide the fate of war. They had half an hour's pleasant talk over Hardy's tea, and then separated.

"I always told you he was our man," said the Captain to Miller, as the walked together to the gates; "we want strength, and he is as strong as a horse. You must have seen him sculling yourself. There isn't his match on the river to my mind."

"Yes, I think he'll do," replied Miller; "at any rate he can't be worse than Drysdale."

As for Tom and Hardy, it may safely be said that no two men in Oxford went to bed in better spirits that Saturday night than they two.

And now to explain how it came about that Hardy was wanted. Fortune had smiled upon the St. Ambrosians in the two races which succeeded the one in which they had bumped Exeter. They had risen two more places without any very great trouble. Of course, the constituencies on the bank magnified their powers and doings. There never was such a crew, they were quite safe to be head of the river, nothing could live against their pace. So the young oars in the boat swallowed all they heard, thought themselves the finest fellows going, took less and less pains to keep up their condition, and when they got out of earshot of Jervis and Diogenes, were ready to bet two to one that they would bump Oriel the next night, and keep easily head of the river for the rest of the races.

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.

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 quaver of consternation, while the air was rent with the name and laudations of "little Oriel."

Long before the Cherwell Drysdale was completely baked (he had played truant the day before and dined at the Weirs, were 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 pursuer, and with a crew much less depressed.

Such races must tell on strokes; and even Jervis, who had pulled magnificently throughout, was very much done at the close, and leant 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 manoeuvered the crew into their dressing-room by themselves, Jervis having stopped below. Then he 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, head nor pluck." 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." Tom and most of the others were too much out of heart to resist; but at last Drysdale fired up-

"You've no right to be so savage that I can see," he said, suddenly stopping the low whistle 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."

"Yes, I do," said Miller.

"Then this honourable 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."

"Which my coxswainship is graciously pleased to accept," replied


"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."

"Suave est, it's what I'm partial to, mari mango, in the last reach, 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 before the glass. 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.

"Congratulate me, my Captain," said Drysdale; "I'm well out of it at last."

Jervis "pished and pshaw'd" a little at hearing what had happened, but his presence acted like oil on the waters. The moment 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 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.

"Well, what are we going to do now," said the Captain.

"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."

"I suppose we must press somebody from the torpid-let me see, there's Burton."

"He rolls like a porpoise," interrupted Miller, positively; "impossible."

"Stewart might do, then."

"Never kept time for three strokes in his life," said Miller.

"Well, there are no better men," said the Captain.

"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."

"Hardy would row if you asked him, I'm sure," said Tom.

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."

"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."

"I'm sure he won't," said Tom; "I know he would give anything to pull."

"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.

The next day, at a few moments 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 heal 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."

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 afterwards, 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.

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 look-out 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, at such a critical moment, were looked upon as very damaging.

Foremost amongst the runners on the bank was a wiry, dark man, with a 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 great deal of dumb show with the Captain and Miller, and then disappeared.

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 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 hav'n't dropped a stitch this last two days, at any rate."

Then the eventful day arose which Tom, and many others 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 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.

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 the 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 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 race?"

"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 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 look-out 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 towards 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, isn't he?"

"Yes, and I think he'll do; keep your eye on him."

The coxswain nods as if he were somewhat 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 strop 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.

"Hallo, 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," says 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 cock-sure to win, I'll give a view holloa. 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 tonight 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.

Both boats made 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 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 light heeled 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 or three 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 Oriel men 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, Tommy, 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 tonight? 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 Christchurch meadow, from the row 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 Watermen," 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 heard Drysdale's view holloa 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 afterwards Hardy confided to Tom that when he heard that view holloa 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.

Who can describe the scene on the bank? 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. So Jack was choked off with some trouble, and the Oriel men 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 even 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 Christchurch 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 he handcuffed and carried into the boat by force," says the O. U. B. coxswain; "why is not the pressgang an institution in this university?"

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