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Chapter XV. The Boat Race.

The balance of that school year was a season of hard study for Joel. It was not in his nature to remain long despondent over the loss of the Goodwin scholarship, and a week after the winter term commenced he was as cheerful and light-hearted as ever. But his failure served to spur him on to renewed endeavors, and as a result he soon found himself at the head of the upper middle. Rightly or wrongly--and there is much to be said on both sides--he gave up sports almost entirely. Now and then West persuaded him to an afternoon on the links, but this was infrequent. The hockey season opened with the first hard ice on the river, and West joined the team that met and defeated St. Eustace in January. There was one result of his application to study that Joel had not looked for. Outfield West, perhaps from a mere desire to be companionable, took to lessons, and, much to his own pretended dismay, began to earn the reputation of a diligent student.

"You won't talk," growled West, "you won't play chess, you won't eat things. You just drive a chap to study!" As spring came in the school talk turned to baseball and rowing. For the former Joel had little desire, but rowing attracted him, and he began to allow himself the unusual pleasure of an hour away from lessons in the afternoon that he might go down to the boathouse with West, and there, in a sunny angle of the building, watch the crews at work upon the stream. Hillton was trying very hard to turn out a winning crew, and Whipple, who was captain of the first eight, toiled as no captain had toiled before in the history of Hillton aquatics.

The baseball season ended disastrously with a severe drubbing for the Hillton nine at the hands of St. Eustace on the latter's home ground. The fellows said little, but promised to atone for it when the boat race came off. This occurred two days before class day, which this year came on June 22d, and very nearly every pupil traveled down the river to Marshall to witness it. The day away from school came as a welcome relief after the worry and brain-aching of the spring examination, and Joel, although he knew for a certainty that he had passed with the highest marks, was glad to obey Outfield's stern decree and accompany that youth to the scene of the race.

They went by train and arrived at the little town at noon. After a regal repast of soup and sandwiches, ice cream and chocolate eclairs, the two set out for the river side. The Hillton crew had come down the day before with their new shell, and had spent the night at the only hotel in the village. The race was to be started at three, and West and Joel spent the intervening time in exploring the river banks for a mile in each direction from the bridge, and in getting their feet wet and their trousers muddy.

By the hour set for the start the river sides were thronged with spectators, and rival cheers floated across the sparkling stream from bank to bank. That side of the river whereon St. Eustace Academy lies hidden behind a hill held the St. Eustace supporters, while upon the other bank the Hillton lads and their friends congregated. But the long bridge, something more than a mile below, was common ground, and here the foes mingled and strove to outshout each other.

The river is broad here below Marshall, and forms what is almost a basin, hemmed in on either side by low wooded bluffs. From where Joel and West, with a crowd of Hillton fellows, stood midway upon the bridge, the starting point, nearly a mile and a half up stream was plainly visible, and the finish line was a few rods above them. West was acquainted with several of the St. Eustace boys, and to these Joel was introduced and was welcomed by them with much cordiality and examined with some curiosity. He had accomplished the defeat of their Eleven, and they would know what sort of youth he was.

While they were talking, leaning against the railing of the bridge, Joel suddenly caught West's arm and drew his attention to a boy some distance away who was looking toward the starting point through a pair of field glasses. West indulged in a long whistle, plainly indicative of amazement.

"Who's that fellow over there?" he asked. One of the St. Eustace boys followed the direction of his gaze.

"Well, you ought to know him. He knows you. That's Bartlett Cloud. He was at Hillton last term, and left because he was put off the Eleven; or so he says."

"Humph!" ejaculated Outfield West. "He left to keep from being expelled, he did. He left because he was mixed up in some mighty dirty work, and knew that, even if they let him stay in school, no decent fellow would associate with him. And you can tell him from me that if he says I know him he's a liar. I don't know him from--from mud! I should think you'd be proud of him at Eustace."

"We didn't know that," answered the St. Eustace boy in perplexity. "We thought--"

"What?" demanded West as the other paused.

"Well, he said that the coach was down on him, and gave his place to your friend here, and--"

"No," answered Joel quietly. "I didn't take his place. He tried to strike me one day at practice, and Remsen, our coach, put him off. That was all. Afterward he--he--But it isn't worth talking about."

"But I didn't know that St. Eustace made a practice of taking in cast-off scamps from other schools," said West. The other lad flushed as he answered apologetically:

"We didn't know, West. He said he was a friend of yours and so--But the other fellows shall know about him." Then there was a stir on the bridge and a voice cried, "There they go to the float!"

Up the stream at the starting point two shells were seen leisurely paddling toward a float anchored a few yards off the right bank. The colors were easily distinguishable, and especially did the crimson of Hillton show up to the eager watchers on the bridge. Every eye was turned toward the two boats, and a silence held the throng, a silence which lasted until sixteen oar-blades caught the water almost together, and the two boats began to leave the float behind. Then cries of "They're off!" were raised, and there was a general shoving and pushing for places of observation on the up-stream side of the structure, while along the banks the crowds began to move about again.

It was Joel's first sight of a boat race, and he found himself becoming very excited, while West, veteran though he was, breathed a deal faster, and talked in disjointed monosyllables.

"Side by side!... No, Hillton's ahead!... Isn't she?... Eh ... You can't... see from here ... which is ... leading.... Get another hold on my ... arm, ... Joel; that one's black ... and blue! ... Hillton's ahead! Hillton's ahead by a half length!"

But she wasn't. Side by side the two shells swept on toward the first half-mile mark. They were both rowing steadily, with no endeavor to draw away, Hillton at thirty strokes, St. Eustace at thirty-two. The course was two miles, almost straight away down the river. The half-mile buoy was not distinguishable from where Joel stood, but the mile was plainly in sight. Some one who held a stop-watch behind Joel uttered an impatient growl at the slow time the crews were making.

"There'll be no record broken to-day," he said. "They're eight seconds behind already for the first quarter."

But Joel didn't care about that. If only those eight swaying forms might pass first beyond the finish line he cared but little what the time might be. The cheering, which had ceased as the boats left the start, now began again as they approached the finish of the first quarter of the course.

"Rah-rah-rah; rah-rah-rah; rah-rah-rah, Hillton!" rang out from the right bank.

"S, E, A; S, E, A; S, E, A; Saint Eustace!" replied the left bank with a defiant roar of sound that was caught by the hills and flung back in echoes across the water. "Saint Eustace! Saint Eustace! Saint Eustace!" "Hillton! Hillton! Hillton!"

Then the cheering grew louder and more frenzied as, boat to boat, the rival eights passed the half-mile buoy, swinging along with no perceptible effort over the blue, dancing water.

"Anybody's race," said Outfield West, as he lowered his glasses. "But Hillton's got the outside course on the turn." The turn was no more than a slight divergence from the straight line at the one-mile mark, but it might mean from a half to three quarters of a length to the outside boat should they maintain their present relative positions. For the next half mile the same moderate strokes were used until the half-course buoy was almost reached, when Hillton struck up to thirty-two and then to thirty-four, and St. Eustace increased her stroke to the latter number. It was a race for the position nearest the buoy, and St. Eustace won it, Hillton falling back a half length as the course was changed. Then the strokes in both boats went back to thirty-two, Hillton seemingly willing to keep in the rear. On and on they came, the oars taking the water in unison, and shining like silver when the sun caught the wet blades. And back, the wakes seemed like two ruled marks, so straight they were. There was no let up of the cheering now. Back and forth went challenge and reply across the stream, while the watchers on the bridge fairly shook that iron-trussed structure with the fury of their slogans.

As the boats neared the three-quarter buoy it was plain to all who looked that the real race was yet to come. Hillton suddenly hit up her stroke to thirty-four, to thirty-six, to thirty-eight, and, a bit ragged perhaps, but nevertheless at a beautiful speed, drew up to St. Eustace, shoved her nose a quarter length past, and hung there, despite St. Eustace's best efforts to shake her off.

Both boats were now straining their uttermost, and from now on to the finish it was to be the stiffest rowing of which each was capable. Hillton was ragged on the port side, and bow was plainly tuckered. But St. Eustace also showed signs of wear, and there was an evident disposition the length of the boat to hurry through the stroke. Joel was straining his eyes on the crimson backs, and West was vainly and unconsciously endeavoring to see through the glasses from the wrong end. The three-quarter mark swept past the boats, and Hillton still maintained her lead.

The judges' boat, a tiny, saucy naphtha launch, had steamed down to the finish, and now quivered there as though from impatience and excitement, and awaited the victor. Suddenly there was a groan of dismay from the St. Eustace supporters. And no wonder. Their boat had suddenly dropped behind until its nose was barely lapping the rival shell. Number Four was rowing "out of time and tune," as Joel shouted triumphantly, and although he soon steadied down, the damage was hard to repair, for Hillton, encouraged by the added lead, was rowing magnificently.

But with strokes that brought cries of admiration even from her foes St. Eustace struggled gloriously to recover her lost water. Little by little the nose of her boat crept up and up, until it was almost abreast with Number Three's oar, while cries of encouragement from bridge and shore urged her on. But now Green, the Hillton coxswain, turned his head slightly, studied the position of the rival eight, glanced ahead at the judges' boat, and spoke a short, sharp command.

And instantly, ragged port oars notwithstanding, the crimson crew seemed to lift their boat from the water at every stroke, and St. Eustace, struggling gamely, heroically, to the last moment, fell farther and farther behind. A half length of clear water showed between them, then a length, then--and now the line was but a stone-throw away--two fair lengths separated the contestants. And amid the deafening, frenzied shrieks of their schoolmates, their crimson-clad backs rising and falling like clock-work, all signs of raggedness gone, the eight heroes swept over the line winners by two and a half lengths from the St. Eustace crew, and disappeared under the bridge to emerge on the other side with trailing oars and wearied limbs.

And as they went from sight, Joel, stooping, yelling, over the railing, saw, with the piercing shriek of the launch's whistle in his ears, the upraised face of Green, the coxswain, smiling placidly up at him.