Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Pt.II -  Chapter 6 - The "Derby" of the River

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THERE is a certain morning anterior to Passion Week, and dependent upon the falling of Easter, wherein, if you look for a Hansom upon a London cabstand, you will look in vain. Four-wheelers, denominated, by the voice of Detraction, Grumblers, will indeed be there in plenty, and made even more numerous to the disappointed eye by the absence of their swift-wheeled brethren; but of the far-darting, the close-shaving Hansoms, there are none. Or, perhaps, if it be yet early, there may be one, upon which, in the soft-fallng April rain, some traveller, actuated by commercial impulse, fixes his gaze, and beckons, with his umbrella pointed citywards - for the driver is [-302-] already turning towards the West. That impatient gesture loses for him his contemplated ride. The driver backs his steed again into the rank, and shakes his head, not apologetically, but in reprobation, as though a futile endeavour had been made to rob him of his due. Again the commercial person beckons, and this time with angry vehemence, for the rain falls faster and faster; but that Hansom cabman stares before him, sphinx-like, into space, as though there were no would-be fare gesticulating upon the pavement. "What is worse than raining cats and dogs?" asks an ancient riddle, to which the apt reply is: "Hailing cabs and omnibuses;" but when these two misfortunes occur together, the result is loss of temper to the sufferer. The citizen, ejaculating the harmless oath of Cockaigne,* [* "Well, I never!"]  leaves the pathway, and approaches the recalcitrant cabman, who thereupon gathers up his reins, nods to an imaginary fare in the extreme distance, and drives off at a hand- gallop. The whole scene, as once witnessed by  [-303-] the present writer, is a charming idyll. The coy Hansom will not be wooed by the citizen, but prefers rather even an imaginary swain in the sweet suburbs, or by the river-side. To be more explicit, the driver does not wish to take up any ordinary passenger that morning, but to be engaged to go to Putney, Barnes, or Hammersmith, for the University Boat-race.
    That great event, which, for this day only, throws the inhabitants of those undesirable localities into a fever of excitement, and compensates them (let us hope) for their position during the remainder of the year, affects even London itself. The human tide in the Strand - and its adjacent streets - is perceptibly increased by feeders from Oxford and Cambridge. Dark and Light Blue - the respective colours of those Universities - are the prevailing tint that morning among neck-handkerchiefs. Little rosettes of either colour are worn at many a button-hole, and even Oxford and Cambridge fancy-dogs - doomed soon, perhaps, to reappear in the metropolis in the form of Oxford and [-304-] Cambridge sausages - have dark or light blue ribbons round their necks. The new-comers, their masters, would, however, be recognisable enough without such ornaments. They have not the unswerving, rapid step of the regular passenger. Their gaze wanders hither and thither with lively interest, for the streets to which they are accustomed are quiet, unplacarded, unfrequented by pickpockets, and unpatroled by police - save by a sort of medieval division of theological A1's, called Proctors, to which the world happily offers elsewhere no parallel - and, above all, almost entirely vacant of the fair sex. Not mariners from a six months' voyage in Greenland take a tenderer interest in every fair face that passes them, than do these young gentlemen. Since the last long vacation, they (poor Monks!) have scarcely seen one upon whom some fifty winters have not set their mark. No woman is eligible (I believe) for the calling of "Bedmaker" in either university under that mature age, since Sir Tussaud Ceptible (aetat 19) ran away from Christchurch College with [-305-] Sarah Washup (widow), and married her at Abingdon, in her eight-and-fortieth year. Nor, on the other hand, are even the most modest of the sex insensible to the admiration of the strangers; for the latter are all young, and many of them handsome, and have, besides, a certain frank and kindly air about them which is rare in habitual Londoners. These ingenuous youths call each other by their Christian names abbreviated, and slap one another upon the back, with a heartiness that is, however, not the least allied to vulgarity. There is also a charming independence about them, contrasting curiously with the assumed indifference of the young gentlemen of the town. The latter present the appearance, more or less complete, of being the proprietors of the universe; but "this pride is yet no match for theirs" of the Dark and Light Blue, who look as though they did not care to whom it belonged. They do not as yet perceive the necessity of assuming a superior position with respect to others; the world is a solid pudding to them (with plenty of plums in it), and mere wafer-biscuits and trifle-froth have [-306-] no attractions for them. They do not understand that to look weary and ill-tempered is to convey the idea of fashionable beings worn out with the attentions of the aristocracy: and that to take an interest in anything is bad taste. On the contrary, Dark and Light Blue take very great interest in everything, and about this University Boat-race they do more - they are wild enthusiasts.
    What the ocean is to the inhabitants of Great Britain, the Thames between Putney and Mortlake is to the two universities; and to lose a race thereupon, is equivalent, in bitterness, to a national defeat upon the sea. There is, however, this comfort in the present case, that the disgrace can never be inflicted by foreign arms. When, eight full-sized Frenchmen and one little one embark at Putney in a wager-boat, and win a four-mile race against the crews of Oxford and Cambridge, let Dark and Light Blue be known no more, and the Tricolor flag float from the towers of the two St. Marys. It does not indeed lie in the power of a Frenchman to undergo the training to which every [-307-] member of both crews is necessarily subjected. He could not rise at six o'clock every morning, and scour an undulating country at the top of his speed, for the improvement of his wind. He could not take a cold bath afterwards. He could not make his breakfast upon underdone beef-steaks; nor his dinner without pastry or made dishes; nor his supper upon oatmeal water-gruel. He could not confine himself to a pint of liquid daily, of which hot coffee would certainly form no part. And above all, for two whole months - over which period, at least, this training extends-he could not abstain from tobacco. To all these privations the sixteen British youths of family and fortune do voluntarily surrender themselves up, who take the aquatic honour of their universities into keeping. There is a male nurse appointed, who sees them to bed at ten o'clock precisely, and takes care that neither the smile of beauty, nor the "beaded bubbles" of the wine-cup, shall seduce them for one instant from their duties. The annals of ancient and modern history are alike [-308-] destitute of an example of such unegotistic self-devotion, for the very names of this heroic temperance society are scarcely breathed beyond the boat-houses of their respective Colleges. The captains themselves, upon whom more than on the rest hangs the fate of thousands,* [* Thousands of pounds: there being a great deal of betting on the event.] are only known as "Strokes". The man at the other extremity of the fragile plank that bears up the dauntless nine is simple "Bow. The remaining oarsmen have numbers, but no names-Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven; while the ninth man is but the ninth part of a man in physical bulk - the smallest that can be procured (with wits), who sits with his face to the rest, and has carte blanche to use any language he pleases to any of them. The cockswain of a University boat Ěrace, indeed, very seldom attains to any reputation afterwards; the giddy eminence turns his little head. He can never forget that eventful day when Stroke himself was subject to his Supreme Diminutiveness, [-309-] and from Seven to " Bow" inclusive were the targets for his aquatic vituperations. Moreover, throughout the training the cockswain is a chartered libertine, and (they say) takes a demoniacal delight in tantalising the rest with the sight of his own profligate excess. On the other hand, he has a tremendous responsibility, and if he steer one hair-breadth from his course, ten thousand eyes perceive it, and when he arrives with his beaten crew at Mortlake, five thousand voices (supposing every witness to have two eyes) are lifted up to denounce the sinner and his crime.
    The Dark and Light Blues in the Strand are bound for the steamers, many of which give up for this day their ordinary traffic in order to attend the race. Upon the Violet and the Rosebud, on the Snowdrop and the Anemone (pronounced by the water-public "any money" ), these young men cluster like bees upon real flowers. They swarm upon the captain's "bridge" (which is forbidden), and on the paddle-boxes (which is dangerous,) and half-way down the cabin stairs-which, if they [-310-] want to see the contest, is ridiculous. By these, as at a horse-sale at "the Corner," the physical merits of each of the competitors are criticised, and their styles as "oars" debated; while the state of the wind and tide is as vitally interesting to all as though they were about to cross the Channel. These enthusiasts in the steamers are for the most part, however, regular "boating-men." Few others would submit themselves to the inconveniences incidental to this method of transit, or would be content to behold the race (as the great majority on board must do), at second hand; to have it described-that is, in the narratio obliqua, by some friend who has managed to secure a post of vantage.
    Individuals less actuated by passion, however, are content to go to Hammersmith Bridge, as we have already indicated, and why in Hansoms in preference to any other vehicle will be presently seen. The road thither from town is thronged with these as well as with private carriages, and cavaliers and dames on horseback. The scene [-311-] reminds one of an expurgated edition of a Derby Day. There are no costermongers, no pleasure-vans, no omnibuses, no advertisement Mammoth wains, no drinking at public-houses, no boys performing "the wheel" by the roadside. There is a vast deal of aristocracy, and nothing under gentility in the whole procession. Even the pedestrians are M.A.'s or Undergraduates at the least. The Lawyer forsakes his inn of court, the Parson his cure, the Physician his round of patients, the Swell his forenoon canter in Rotten Row, for this one morning, in order to witness the triumph of his University. Fathers decked out with Dark or Light Blue favours, ride by with their Sons similarly decorated; age and youth alike interested in the same contest. Whole schools of boys in Dark and Light Blue colours, according to the University for which they are destined, or to which their elder brothers may belong. And, above all, numbers of the fair sex with Dark or Light Blue bonnet-ribbons, or with elegant rosettes of the same pinned to their riding-habits, [-312-] as Oxford or Cambridge agitate their innocent bosoms by reason of fathers or brothers having been alumni thereof, or haply because of "a dearer one yet and a nearer one," who may be even now at one or other University.
    No carriages are allowed to remain upon Hammersmith Bridge, but cross over it, and await their proprietors upon the Surrey side, until the boats shall have passed under, when all resume their seats, and are whirled away at speed to Barnes Terrace, where another view is obtained of the competitors: and Hansoms only are chosen for this purpose because no four-wheel could devour the ground with sufficient rapidity. In the meantime, the occupants of the Bridge are, like the Bridge itself, in a state of suspense, and all eyes straining eastward to the point at which the contending gallies must first appear. The houses that command the reach are filled with spectators, and the towing-path alive with pedestrians, although troops of horsemen will presently gallop recklessly along, to whom riding down a fellow-[-313-]creature weighs as nothing in comparison with losing sight for an instant of the "style" of their particular friend, No.4 or 5. How many fanatics are sacrificed yearly in this manner it is impossible to say; the wash of the steamers, as they pass in double line, entirely whelming the towing-path, and probably carrying the corpses, eventually, out to sea. That pious superstition, and not mere vulgar curiosity, animates many of these persons, is certain, since they station themselves far ahead of the boats, begin to run as soon as these have started, and never look over their shoulders until they get to Mortlake: to turn the head, as they are well aware, would be to be tripped up, to be trampled upon, and to find a grave, as I have already hinted, in the depths of ocean. From the Bridge, however, these enthusiasts present an interesting sight, and afford an index to the time of starting; when the first of them runs under Hammersmith Bridge, as though a mad dog were after him, we that are upon it learn that the Dark and Light Blue are "off " at Putney. Left to [-314-] ourselves, some of us are a little liable to error; the ladies especially taking all wager-boats afloat (of which there are some hundreds) for the Rivals of the day, and encouraging them to gratuitous exertions.
    As the time draws on, the spectators grow more anxious, and seem to fear even to turn round, lest at that very moment the boats should come in sight. Glasses advertised to enable us to discern "persons at a mile off, and objects at three miles"  - which is invidious, to say the least of it - are in many hands, but they cannot help us to see round that corner. So anxious are we by this time, that the intrusion of a chance passenger who ventures to cross the Bridge at such a moment is resented as a studied insult; and we are vehemently indignant with a solitary Volunteer, not in Dark or Light Blue by any means, who has apparently mistaken the character of the entertainment (as those Volunteers are always doing), and has brought his gun with him.
    But see, there is a dark mass looming round the [-315-]  point at last - the first of the fleet of steamers chartered to accompany the race. This mighty phalanx, each with its every foot of standing-room crowded with human beings, is a strange and stately sight, and the huge black hulls have a weird and dismal aspect, as though they were assembled to do honour to some Departed, water-borne to his last home. It is not at once that we can detect, a very little in advance of them, the two fragile boats containing the heroes of the day. "Light Blue's ahead!" "No, it's Dark Blue, by Jove !" "Bravo, Oxford !" "Confound our luck again !" "Well pulled, well pulled !" That last, of all cries, is the most appropriate and deserved. Each eight-oar is shot forward as though propelled by a single pair of sculls. The silver splash of the oar-blades, the sharp half-roll in the rowlocks, are each a single sound. The backs of the eight oarsmen rise and fall with the regularity of piston-strokes, and both crews are just now what is called "putting their backs into it "- rowing their very hardest.
    But alas for the Light Blue heroes; they are [-316-] overmatched altogether for this time, and at least two lengths behind. Their adherents upon the Bridge groan within themselves and shiver, while they mutter something meant to be reassuring: "Never mind," or "Better luck next time." The Light Blue ladies sigh as they finger their rosettes. The Light Blue boys cry "Hang it!" and "What a sell !"
    There are not a few Cantabs present, perhaps, across whose mind has flashed the brilliant thought of making their memories fragrant and to blossom in their dust for ever by jumping down into the Dark Blue boat as it went by, and sinking that hated craft. No Curtius was ever dearer to Roman hearts than he who should do this thing would be for aye to Light Blue bosoms. But the wind is east, and the water looks very cold, and the moment for the self-sacrifice is lost in indecision. The Cantab gaze may wander for a moment upon some Dark Blue boy whom it would be luxury indeed to have dropped instead-with his feet tied together with dark-blue ribbons, so that his determination [-317-] to stop on board, if he failed to sink her, might be relied upon-but even this vicarious opportunity has slipped by: the boats sweep on, and sentimental regret must not be indulged in, if we would obtain another view of them.
    Each rushes to his peculiar vehicle, and then along the road begins the strife of Hansoms-almost as much a University race as the aquatic one. In addition to the dangers arising from the excessive speed, there is a particular peril in the fact, that the drivers cannot afford to bestow any attention upon their careering horses, their eyes being exclusively occupied in watching the boats, which, although lost to their fares, they can distinguish from their own elevated positions.
    At Barnes Terrace, we see the fate of Light Blue finally decided, as well as hear it abundantly accounted for. Never yet was boat-race lost, I believe, but through certain untoward circumstances quite out of the control of the losers. The wind has blown the cockswain out of the boat; or the stroke has broken an oar, or a blood-vessel; or [-318-] a barge (preceded by expletives) has filled up the identical arch in the bridge selected by the steerer. As in the great classical combats, whenever the occasion seemed to demand it, a god was made to intervene, so in the University contest, some unforeseen and unavoidable influence is ever observed by the friends of the defeated party. Upon the whole, however, Fortune has been singularly impartial: out of nineteen races, ten having been won by Light Blue, and nine by Dark.
    I have said that at Hammersmith the procession resembled an expurgated Derby Day. We must confess, on the other hand, that at Mortlake, where the steamers and the trains disgorge their thousands, we fired that wicked appendix which accompanies most Bowdlerised editions. Beside the fast and loose, however, common to all metropolitan spectacles, the University element is still distinct and recognisable. The spruce black coat and faultless neckcloth of the youthful divine are especially prominent; lie has come up from his interesting flock in town or country to see this sight, [-319-] so redolent of his palmy  college-days, although he has no longer any taste for the gaudy shows of the world in other respects. He will dine with the competing crews in the evening, however, lest there should not be a clergyman to ask a blessing upon that entertainment. It is very pleasant to see him refusing cigars, and offers of a third seat in a Hansom to take him back to town. Twelve months ago, or even less, the lad bad an admirable eye for colour, and promenaded "the High" or the "King's Parade" in the most brilliant hues; but now, poor fellow, he is reduced to black and white, with the tiniest sprig-and even that is contrary to the canon law-of Dark or Light Blue ribbon in his button-hole. He prayed here today in his heart, as though he were reading in his pulpit what is called the "Bidding" prayer, which invokes a blessing "upon both our royal and pious foundations but especially upon that university to which I belong.