Listen! The gun! There is a heaving of the entire mass: a low, full murmur rolls along the river-banks. A spasm of intense excitement passes through the two or three hundred thousand people who have packed themselves along the shores to see the prowess of a few University lads. Desperate fellows along the towing-paths take walls by assault, force their way into boats, hoist themselves upon the shoulders of their neighbors. They are coming!
Far away in the distance we catch the cheering, to which the low hum and vibration of excitement under our Terrace is the bass accompaniment. From the haze, where the shores wind, beyond the bridge, roll waving echoes of the wild agitation that stirs the steep hedges of humanity. The boats are thrust and bullied from the central way. They come! * The Limes, Mortlake; the residence of Mr. Marsh Nelson, under whose noble linden a brilliant company is annually gathered to see the Derby of the river Thames.
Amid frantic shouting, amid a snow--storm of pocket--handkerchiefs, and delirious ravings of purple-faced betting men, two lithe, trim, swift boats, dipping one dip and feathering one flame of light, skim along the shining way.
Men and women dance; men who were stern of aspect a moment since make trumpets of their hands, and bawl their joy like bulls. The excitement is too much for many, who absolutely turn away, and mechanically echo the general cry. Cambridge-no, Oxford! Oxford-no, Cambridge! Bravo, Oxford! give it ‘em, Cambridge!
Direct and sharp as sword-fish after prey-THEY PASS!
And then a white ocean of faces bursts upon us. Helter-skelter at fullest speed, hidden under their human burden, and gay with bunting, the steamers, serried like guardsmen a moving wall bearing a convulsed multitude-close behind the fighting crews. The roar dies out slowly and with expiring bursts, like a nearly spent storm, and then rises and rumbles away from us to the winning-post.
The first gun; a second's pause, and then another gun. A fowler lifts the feathers of some pigeons, and the news of the battle has taken wing. And in another minute the strings of the bow are loosened. Features relax, and settle back to the every-day expression. The beggars begin to beg; the poor boys to sell their fusees; the calm coster to open his oysters; and all the world to wonder how they will squeeze through the narrow lanes home by bed-time.
There were many of the mighty army on the road when the vanguard was in bed; and it was with difficulty we sat down to dine with the crews at Willis's Rooms, even at half-past nine that night.
The journey back from the boat-race has, of course, many of the diverting as well as many of the wearisome characteristics of the return from the Derby. It may be said that Hammersmith Bridge on this occasion plays the part which Kennington Gate used to play on the Derby Day. Getting away from the Terrace at Barnes, whether on foot or riding, is a work of time, temper, and patience. A little courage, moreover, is not thrown away. The pedestrian has to thread his path through a seething multitude, all pushing for one outlet; horses, carriages, men, and women massed and confused together.
We had been quiet and at our ease under the hospitable Limes during the race, so that we had not been seasoned to the rough usages of the crowd. Anxious to take a close view of the London apprentice disporting himself, we sallied forth upon the Terrace, and at once we had our wish. We were packed close as wax-lights in their box, and pinioned and driven hither and thither by the swaying multitude. Now parted and now pressed close together, we had an ample dose of cockney wit and satire, whetted by London beer and gin. The Frenchman--entre deux vans--goes blithely along arm-in-arm with his mate, taking a second in a popular chorus; but, alas! his English brother is neither so light of heart nor so cultivated, and gives vent to his excitement in jests that are blisters upon the polite ear. I have often thought it was a pity that the Orpheonist system of France was not vigorously established in every part of England, so that workmen and their wives might have at least one refining amusement within their reach. It will be fortunate for us as a nation if the plans for musical competitions which are now being carried out at Sydenham should end in something like a national system of musical instruction for the people, such as I had the pleasure of sketching in concert with my friend Mr. Willert Beale.
It is on the day of the boat-race that the boys of London are seen in all their glory, and in all their astonishing and picturesque varieties. To watch them on the parapets of the bridges, dangling from the arches, swinging from the frailest boughs of trees, wading among the rushes, paddling in the mud, scrambling, racing, fighting, shouting along the roads and river paths, or through the furze of Putney Common, is a suggestive as well as an amusing sight. We studied them in all the rich picturesqueness of rags --poor, hungry, idle little fellows--as they worked valiantly, trying to earn a few pence by disentangling the carriages and leading them to their owners, after the event of the day was over. Little rascals whose heads could hardly touch a man's elbow had the deep-set voices of men. On our way home we paused a long time watching them and speculating on the waste of brave spirit that was going on within them. They were all pale, and nearly all lean; they were babies tossed-their bones hardly set-into the thick of the battle of life.
The Cockney gamin was the constant wonder of my fellow-pilgrim. It appeared terrible, indeed, to him that in all the poverty-stricken districts of our London, children should most abound; that some of the hardest outdoor work should be in their feeble little hands; that infant poverty should be the news-distributor; that, in short, there should be a rising generation hardened in its earliest years to vagabondage, and allured to grow to that most miserable of human creatures, the unskilled, dependent, roofless man.
The race-dinner is as national as the race. At the board the stranger can see at a glance a full representation of the gentlemen of England; and see them when most they represent the salient features of the Anglo- Saxon character. Grouped about the chair are elders of the Universities, fighting their old battles over again, and bathing heartily in the flush and glow of the combatants of to-day. Yonder sits a frail, fair, girlish boy, as composed in his aspect as the Speaker of the House of Commons. He it is who guided the triumphant boat this morning. And about him are comely, graceful, blue-eyed lads, and young men of lithe and muscular form, all marked with that refinement which is native to the scions of cultivated, well-bred sires.
There is spirit, laughter, heartiness enough, but held by a silver thread. The speeches are unstudied and short, but robust; and the dominant idea is, honor to the valiant Vanquished, for "they are jolly good fellows;" and so say all the company again and again to the subject of every toast; and so declares Mr. Godfrey's band fifty times; and so we all murmur and hum in the cloak-room, in the street, and in the dressing-room.
And so a voice sang early on the morrow morning, between the puffs of a cigar, asking, "What does it signify? What is the meaning of it? Ce pauvre Godfrey must have had enough of La la-la la la la la la!- `for they are jolly good fellows!' " etc.
It signifies heartiness--which is a generous plant of English growth, and to be found in all classes--in the contending crews as in the ragged urchins who frantically cheer the files of carriages and cabs home from Mortlake or from Epsom.
They are earning a few pence--apparently enjoying that "freedom wealthy with a crust" of which Barry Cornwall has sung. If there is care in their eyes, there is ever humor on their lips. There is the stuff of heroes in many of these Tom Allalones, if society would only discover the means of getting at it, instead of leaving them to the exclusive cultivation of their vices and bad passions.
Well, here's sixpence for little Jack, and good luck to him every boat-race day!