The short description of the University boat-race which begins this chapter was written two years ago, from the author’s recollections of the race of 1852. It would do for a description of this year’s race, quite as well as of any other year, substituting “Cambridge” for “Oxford,” according to the year.
Putney Bridge at half an hour before high tide; thirteen or fourteen steamers; five or six thousand boats, and fifteen or twenty thousand spectators. This is the morning of the great University race, about which every member of the two great Universities, and a very large section of the general public, have been fidgeting and talking for a month or so.
The bridge is black, the lawns are black, every balcony and window in the town is black; the steamers are black with a swarming, eager multitude, come to see the picked youths of the upper class try their strength against one another. There are two friends of ours nearly concerned in the great event of the day. Charles is rowing three in the Oxford boat, and Marston is steering. This is a memorable day for both of them, and more especially for poor Charles.
Now the crowd surges to and fro, and there is a cheer. The men are getting into their boats. The olice-boats are busy clearing the course. Now there is a cheer of admiration. Cambridge dashes out, swings round, and takes her place at the bridge.
Another shout. Oxford sweeps majestically out and takes her place by Cambridge. Away go the police-galleys, away go all the London club-boats, at ten miles an hour down the course. Now the course is clear, and there is almost a silence.
Then a wild hubbub; and people begin to squeeze and crush against one another. The boats are off; the fight has begun; then the thirteen steamers come roaring on after them, and their wake is alive once more with boats.
Everywhere a roar and a rushing to and fro. Frantic crowds upon the towing-path, mad crowds on the steamers, which make them sway and rock fearfully. Ahead Hammersmith Bridge, hanging like a black bar, covered with people as with a swarm of bees. As an eyepiece to the picture, two solitary flying-boats, and the flashing oars, working with the rapidity and regularity of a steam-engine.
“Who’s in front?” is asked by a thousand mouths; but who can tell? We shall see soon. Hammersmith Bridge is stretching across the water not a hundred yards in front of the boats. For one half — second a light shadow crosses the Oxford boat, and then it is out into the sunlight beyond. In another second the same shadow crosses the Cambridge boat. Oxford is ahead.
The men with light-blue neckties say that, “By George, Oxford can’t keep that terrible quick stroke going much longer;” and the men with dark-blue ties say, “Can’t she, by Jove!” Well, we shall know all about it soon, for here is Barnes Bridge. Again the shadow goes over the Oxford boat, and then one, two, three, four seconds before the Cambridge men pass beneath it. Oxford is winning! There is a shout from the people at Barnes, though the crowd don’t know why. Cambridge has made a furious rush, and drawn nearly up to Oxford; but it is useless. Oxford leaves rowing, and Cambridge rows ten strokes before they are level. Oxford has won!
Five minutes after, Charles was on the wharf in front of the Ship Inn at Mortlake, as happy as a king. He had got separated from his friends in the crowd, and the people round him were cheering him, and passing flattering remarks on his personal appearance, which caused Charles to laugh, and blush, and bow, as he tried to push through his good-natured persecutors, when he suddenly, in the midst of a burst of laughter caused by a remark made by a drunken bargeman, felt somebody clasp his arm, and turning round, saw William.
He felt such a shock that he was giddy and faint. “Will!” he said, “what is the matter?”
“Come here, and I’ll tell you.”
He forced Iris way to a quieter place, and then turned round to his companion, — “Make it short, Will; that’s a dear fellow. I can stand the worst.”
“Master was took very bad two days ago, Master Charles; and Master Cuthbert sent me off for you at once. He told me directly I got to Paddington to ask for a telegraph-message, so that you might hear the last accounts; and here it is.”
He put what we now call a “telegram ” into Charles’s hand, and the burden of it was mourning and woe. Densil Ravenshoe was sinking fast, and all that steam and horseflesh could do would be needed, if Charles would see him alive.
“Will, go and find Mr. Marston for me, and I will wait here for you. How are we to get back to Putney?”
“I have got a cab waiting.”
William dashed into the inn, and Charles waited. He turned and looked at the river.
There it was winding away past villa and park, bearing a thousand boats upon its bosom. He looked once again upon the crowded steamers and the busy multitude, and even in his grief felt a rush of honest pride as he thought that he was one of the heroes of the day. And then he turned, for William was beside him again. Marston was not to be found.
“I should like to have seen him again,” he said; “but we must fly, Will, we must fly!”
Had he known under what circumstances he was next to see a great concourse of people, and under what circumstances he was next to meet Marston, who knows but that in his ignorance and short-sightedness he would have chosen to die where he stood in such a moment of triumph and honour?
In the hurry of departure he had no time to ask questions. Only when he found himself in the express train, having chosen to go second-class with his servant, and not be alone, did he find time to ask how it had come about.
There was but little to be told. Densil had been seized after breakfast, and at first so slightly that they were not much alarmed. He had been put to bed, and the symptoms had grown worse. Then William had been despatched for Charles, leaving Cuthbert, Mary, and Father Mackworth at his bedside. All had been done that could be done. He seemed to-be in no pain, and quite contented. That was all. The telegraph told the rest. Cuthbert had promised to send horses to Crediton, and a relay forty miles nearer home.
The terrible excitement of the day, and the fact that he had eaten nothing since breakfast, made Charles less able to bear up against the news than he would otherwise have been. Strange thoughts and fears began to shape themselves in his head, and to find voices in the monotonous jolting of the carriage.
Not so much the fear of his father’s death. That he did not fear, because he knew it would come; and, as to that, the bitterness of death was past, bitter, deeply bitter, as it was: but a terror lest his father should die without speaking to him — that he should never see those dear lips wreathe into a smile for him any more.
Yesterday he had been thinking of this very journey — of how, if they won the race, he would fly down on he wings of the wind to tell them, and how the old an would brighten up with joy at the news. Yesterday he was a strong, brave man; and now what deadly terror was this at his heart?
“William, what frightens me like this?” “The news I brought you, and the excitement of the race. And you have been training hard for a long time, and that don’t mend a man’s nerves; and you are hungry.” “Not I.”
“What a noble race it was! I saw you above a mile off. I could tell the shape of you that distance, and see how you was pulling your oar through. I knew that my boy was going to be in the winning boat, Lord bless you! before the race was rowed. And when I saw Mr. C come in with that tearing, licking quick stroke of his, I sung out for old Oxford, and pretty nearly forgot the photograph for a bit.”
“Photograph, Will? what photograph?”
“Telegraph, I mean. It’s all the same.”
Charles couldn’t talk, though he tried. He felt an anxiety he had never felt before. It was so ill-defined that he could not trace it to its source. He had a right to feel grief, and deep anxiety to see his father alive; but this was sheer terror, and at what?
At Swindon, William got out and returned laden with this and with that, and forced Charles to eat and drink. He had not tasted wine for a long time; so he had to be careful with it; but it seemed to do him no good.
But, at last, tired nature did something for him, and he fell asleep.
When he awoke it was night, and at first he did not remember where he was. But rapidly his grief came upon him; and up, as it were out of a dark gulf, came the other nameless terror and took possession of his heart.
There was a change at Exeter; then at Crediton they met with their first relay of horses, and, at ten o’clock at night, after a hasty supper, started on their midnight ride. The terror was gone the moment Charles was on horseback.
The road was muddy and dark, often with steep banks on each side; but a delicious April moon was over head, and they got on bravely. At Bow there was a glimpse of Dartmoor towering black, and a fresh puff of westerly wind, laden with scents of spring. At Hatherleigh, there were fresh horses, and one of the Ravenshoe grooms waiting for them. The man had heard nothing since yesterday; so at one o’clock they started on again. After this, there were none but cross-country roads, and dangerous steep lanes; so they got on slowly. Then came the morning with voice of ten thousand birds, and all the rich perfume of awaking nature. And then came the woods of home, and they stood on the terrace, between the old house and the sea.
The white surf was playing and leaping around the quiet headlands; the sea-birds were floating merrily in he sunshine; the April clouds were racing their purple shadows across the jubilant blue sea; but the old house stood blank and dull. Every window was closed, and not a sound was heart 1.
For Charles had come too late. Densil Ravenshoe was dead.
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