Chapter Nine.

The Boat-Race.

“And caught once more the distant shout,
The measured pulse of racing oars
Between the willows.”
        In Memoriam.

The banks of “silvery-winding Iscam” were thronged with men; between the hours of two and four the sculls were to be tried for, and some 800 of the thousand undergraduates poured out of their colleges by twos and threes to watch the result from the banks on each side.

The first and second guns had been fired, and the scullers in their boats, each some ten yards apart from the other, are anxiously waiting the firing of the third, which is the signal for starting. That strong splendid-looking young man, whose arms are bared to the shoulder, and “the muscles all a-ripple on his back,” is almost quivering with anxious expectation. The very instant the sound of the gun reaches his ear, those oar-blades will flash like lightning into the water, and “smite the sounding furrows” with marvellous regularity and speed. He is the favourite, and there are some heavy bets on his success; Bruce and Brogten and Lord Fitzurse will be richer or poorer by some twenty pounds each from the result of this quarter of an hour.

The three are standing together on the towing-path opposite that little inn where the river suddenly makes a wide bend, and where, if the rush of men were not certain to sweep them forward, they might see a very considerable piece of the race. But directly the signal is given, and the boats start, everybody will run impetuously at full speed along the banks to keep up with the boats, and cheer on their own men, and it will be necessary for our trio to make the best possible use of their legs, before the living cataract pours down upon them. Indeed, they would not have been on the towing-path at all, but among the rather questionable occupants of the grass plot before the inn on the other side of the river, were it not for their desire to run along with the boats, and inspirit the rowers on whom they have betted.

But what is this? A great odious slow-trailing barge looms into sight, nearly as broad as the river itself, black as the ferrugineous ferryboat of Charon, and slowly dragged down the stream by two stout cart horses, beside which a young bargee is plodding along in stolid independence.

“Hi! hi! you clodhopper there, stop that infernal barge,” shouted Bruce at the top of his voice, knowing that if the barge once passed the winning posts, the race would be utterly spoilt.

“St–t–t–topp there, you cl–l–lown, w–w–will you,” stuttered Fitzurse more incoherent than usual, with indignation.

The young bargee either didn’t hear these apostrophes, or didn’t choose to attend to them, when they were urged in that kind of way; and besides this, as the men were entirely concealed from his view by the curve of the river, he wasn’t aware of the coming race, and therefore saw no reason to obey such imperious mandates.

“Confound the grimy idiot; doesn’t he hear?” said Bruce, turning red and pale with excitement as he thought of the money he had at stake, and remembered that the skiff on which all his hopes lay was first in order, and would therefore be most likely to suffer by any momentary confusion. “Come, Brogten, let’s stop him somehow before it’s too late.”

“Let’s cut the scoundrel’s ropes,” said Brogten between his teeth; and at once the three darted forward at full speed, at the very instant that the sharp crack of the final signal-gun was heard.

It so happened that Julian and Lillyston had started rather late for the races, and had come up with the barge just as it had first neglected the summons of Bruce and Fitzurse.

“Come, bargee,” said Lillyston good-humouredly, “out of the way with the barge as quick as ever you can; there’s a boat-race, and you’ll spoil the fun.”

“Oh, it’s a race, be it?” said the man, as he instantly helped Lillyston to back the horses. “If them young jackanapes had only toald me, ’stead of blusterin’ that way—”

His speech was interrupted by Bruce, who, with his friends, had instantly sprung at the ropes, and cut them in half a dozen places, while the great heavy horses, frightened out of their propriety, turned tail and bolted away at a terrifically heavy trot.

“You big hulking blackguard,” roared Brogten, who had been the first to use his knife, “why the devil didn’t you move when we told you? What business have louts like you to come blundering up the river, and spoil our races?” And Fitzurse, confident in superior numbers, gave emphasis to the question by knocking off the man’s cap.

The bargee was a strongly-built, stupid, healthy-looking young man, of some twenty-three years old, who, from being slow of passion was all the more terrible when aroused. Not finding any vent for his anger in words, he suddenly seized Bruce, (who of the three stood nearest him), by the collar of his boating jersey, shook him as he might have done a baby, and almost before he was aware, pitched him into the river. Instantly swinging round, he gave Lord Fitzurse a butt with his elbow, which sent his lordship tottering into the ditch on the other side, and while his wrath was still blazing, received in one eye a blow from Brogten’s strong fist, which for an instant made him reel.

But it was only for an instant, and then he repaid Brogten with a cuff which felled him to the ground. Brogten was mad with fury. At that moment the men were running round the corner, at the bend of the Iscam, in full career, and hundreds on both sides of the river must have seen him sprawl before the man’s blow. He sprang to his feet, and, blind with rage, lifted the clasp-knife with which he had cut the ropes. A second more, and it would have been buried to the handle in the right arm which, quick as lightning, the bargee raised to shield his face, when Brogten’s arm was seized from behind by Lillyston, who wrested the knife from him, and pitched it into the river.

Brogten turned round, still unconscious what he was about. Julian stood nearest him, and he thought it was Julian who had disarmed him. Old hatred was suddenly joined to outrageous passion, and clenching his fist, he struck Julian in the face. Julian started back just in time to evade the full force of the blow, and fearing a second attack, suddenly tripped his aggressor as he once more rushed towards him.

But now the full tide of men had reached the spot; the barge had drifted helplessly lengthwise across the stream, and an angry circle closed round the chief actors in the scene we have described, while a hundred hasty voices demanded what was the row, and what the bargee meant by “stopping the race in that stupid way?” Meanwhile Bruce, wet and muddy, was declaiming on one side, and Fitzurse, bruised and dirty, on the other, was stammering his uncomprehended oaths; while a dozen men were holding Brogten, who, foiled a second time, and now in a dreadfully ungovernable passion, was struggling with the men who held him, and vowing murder against Julian and the bargee.

It was no time for deliberation, nor are excited, hasty, and disappointed boys the most impartial of jurors. Julian and Lillyston were rapidly explaining the true state of the case to the few who were calm enough to listen; but all that appeared to most of the bystanders was, that a bargee had spoiled the event of the day, and assaulted two or three undergraduates. A cry arose to duck the fellow in the muddiest angle of the Iscam, and twenty hands were laid on his shoulder, to drag him off to his fate. But a sense of injustice, joined to strength and passion, are all but irresistible when their opponents are but half in earnest; and violently exerting his formidable muscles, the man shook himself free with a determination, agility, and pluck which, by a visible logic, showed the men how cruel and cowardly it was to punish him before they knew anything of the rights of the case. Lillyston’s voice, too, began to be loudly heard, and several dons among the crowd exerted themselves to restore order out of the hubbub.

There is nothing like a touch of manliness. A feeble, and fussy, and finicking little proctor, who happened to be on the bank, was pompously endeavouring to assert his dignity, and make himself attended to. He was just beginning to get indignant at the laughing contempt with which his impotent efforts were received, and was asking men for their names and colleges, in a futile sort of way, when a tall and stately tutor in the crowd raised his voice above the uproar, and said, “Silence, gentlemen, if you please, for a moment.” He was recognised and respected, and the men made room for him into the centre of the throng.

“Now, my man, just tell us what’s the matter.” The man was beginning to tell them how wantonly his ropes had been cut, and he himself insulted, when Bruce broke in, “That’s a lie, you beggar; we asked you to move, and you wouldn’t. I’ll have you in prison yet, my fine fellow, you’ll see.”

“And if I don’t make you pay for they ropes, you young pink-and-white monkey, my name ain’t Jem—that’s all.”

“Did anybody see what really took place?” asked the don, cutting short the altercation.

“Yes, I did,” said Lillyston instantly; “the fellow was civil enough, and began to back his horses the moment I told him there was a race, when these gentlemen ran up, abused him, struck him, and cut the ropes.”

“Ay, it’s all very fine for you gentlefolk,” said the man with bitter scorn, “to take away a poor man’s living for your pleasure. How do you think I’m to pay for them ropes? Am I to take the bread out of the children’s mouths, let alone being kicked and speered at? Hang you all, I ain’t afeard o’ none o’ you; come on, the whole lot o’ you to one. I ain’t afeard—not I,” he said again, glaring round like a bull at bay, and stripping an arm of iron strength.

“I never cut your ropes, you brute,” said Bruce, between his teeth, “though you wouldn’t move when we asked you civilly.”

“What’s that, then?” said the man, pointing to a bit of rope two inches long which Bruce still held dangling in his hand.

“I’m afraid you forget the facts, Bruce, in your excitement,” said Lillyston, very sternly.

“Facts or not, I’ll have you up for assault,” said Bruce affectedly, wringing the mud out of his wet sleeve.

“Have me up for assault,” mimicked the man, trying to mince his broad rough accents into Bruce’s delicate tones; and he condescended to add no more, but turned round to catch his horses, which had trotted through the open gate of a neighbouring field, and were now quietly grazing.

“I hope, gentleman,” said Brogten, bluntly, “that you’re not going to believe that blackguard’s word against ours.”

“You forget, sir,” said Mr Norton, the tall don, “that what the blackguard, (as you are pleased to call him), said is confirmed by a gentleman here.”

“And impugned by three gentlemen,” said Bruce, who felt how thoroughly he was in disgrace.

“Do you mean to deny, Bruce, that you swore at the man first, and then cut his ropes, when he was already stopping his barge?” asked Lillyston.

“I mean to say he wouldn’t move when we told him.”

“I appeal to Home,” said Lillyston; “didn’t the man instantly stop when he understood why we wanted him to do so?”

“Yes,” said Julian, who, still dizzy with Brogten’s blow, was standing a little apart, “I am bound to say that the man was entirely in the right.”

“I am inclined to think so,” said Mr Norton, with scorn in his eye; and so saying, he took the little proctor’s arm, and strode away, while the crowd of undergraduates also broke up, and streamed off in twos and threes.

“Do you mean to pay that fellow for his rope, Bruce?” asked Lillyston; “if not, I do.”

“Pay!” said Brogten, with an explosion of oaths; “I’ll pay you and your sizar friend there for this, depend upon it.”

“We’re not afraid,” said Lillyston, quietly. Julian only answered the threat by a bow, and the two walked off to the bargee, who, in despair and anger, was knotting together the cut pieces of his rope.

Lillyston slipped a sovereign into his hand, and told him how sorry he was for what had happened.

“Thank you, sir,” said the man, humbly; “it’s a hard thing for a poor chap to be treated as I’ve been; but you’re a rale gentleman.”

“Well, do me one favour, then. Promise not to say a word to, or take any notice of, those three fellows as they pass you.”

The man promised; but there was no need to have done so, for furious as Brogten was, he and his companions were too crestfallen to take any notice of the bargee in passing, except by contemptuous looks, which he returned with interest. On the whole, it struck them that they would not make a particularly creditable display in hall that evening, and therefore they partook instead of a sumptuous repast in the rooms of Lord Fitzurse, who made up for the dirt which they had been eating by the splendour of his entertainment.

“I’ll be even yet with that fellow Home,” muttered Brogten, as they were parting.

“He’s not w–w–worth it,” said the host. “He’s one of the g–g–ghouls; eh, Bruce—ha! ha! ha!”

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