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.