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Full Online Book HomeShort Stories"fivers" Versus "sixers" At Parkhurst
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'fivers' Versus 'sixers' At Parkhurst Post by :PeterRumgay Category :Short Stories Author :Talbot Baines Reed Date :May 2011 Read :4192

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"fivers" Versus "sixers" At Parkhurst

"I tell you what it is, you fellows, I shall learn to swim!" The speaker was Bobby Jobson, a hero of some thirteen summers, who, in company with four of us, his schoolfellows, sat on the bank of the Colven, under some willows, dabbling his shins in the clear water of the river.

The summer had been tremendously hot. Cricket was out of the question, and boating equally uninviting. The playground had been left deserted to bake and scorch under the fierce sun, and the swings and poles in the gymnasium had blistered and cracked in solitude. The only place where life was endurable was down by the river, and even there it was far too hot to do anything but sit and dabble our feet under the shelter of the trees, and think of icebergs!

A few of the fellows, to our unbounded envy, bathed. They could swim, we could not; and if any rule at Parkhurst was strict, it was the rule which forbade any boy who could not swim to bathe in the river, except with special leave and under the care of a master. And so, like so many small editions of Tantalus, we sat on the bank and kicked our heels in the water, and bemoaned the fate which had brought us into the world without web-feet.

Young donkeys that we were! The idea of _learning_ to swim had never occurred to any of us till Bobby Jobson, in a happy moment, gave birth to the idea in his ejaculation, "I tell you what it is, you fellows, I shall learn to swim!"

"How?" I inquired.

"How?" said Jobson; "why, you know, how does every body learn?" and then he was polite enough to call me a duffer.

"I'll tell you the way," said Ralley, one of our set. "Lie across a desk on your stomach, two or three hours every day, and kick out with your arms and legs."

"Corks and bladders," mildly suggested some one else.

"Get old Blades," (that was the boatman) "to tie a rope round your middle and chuck you into the Giant's Pool," kindly proposed another.

"Just tumble in where you are," said Ralley, "and see if it doesn't come naturally."

"Ugh!" said Jobson, with a grimace, giving a sidekick in the water in the direction of the last speaker. "I'm not sure that _that_ dodge would pay."

While he spoke, to our unbounded horror, the bank on which he and his next neighbour were sitting suddenly gave way, and next moment, with a shout and a splash, our two comrades were floundering helplessly in five feet of water!

Help, happily, was at hand, or there is no saying what might have been the end of the adventure. We did all we could by reaching out our hands and throwing them our jackets to help them, while, with our shouts, we summoned more effective aid. Old Blades, who providentially happened to be passing, was with us in less than a minute, and fished out the two poor half-drowned boys, scarcely a moment before they needed it. They were more frightened, I fancy, than damaged; anyhow, we smuggled them home, dripping as they were, and helped them to bed; and when, next morning, they turned up as usual, nothing the worse for their first swimming lesson, we were, as you may imagine, infinitely relieved.

This little adventure was the origin of the Parkhurst Swimming Club. The doctor, on hearing of the affair, took the proper course; and, instead of forbidding us the river, he secured the services of one or two instructors, and had us all taught the art of swimming. For three months, every day of the week, the School Creek was full of sputtering, choking youngsters. Every new boy was hunted down to the river in turn, and by the end of the year there was hardly a boy at Parkhurst who could not keep his chin up in deep waters.

But this is a long introduction.

One day, two summers after that in which young Jobson and his friend had tumbled into the Colven, a large party of us were down at the bathing- place, indulging in what had now become a favourite summer pastime. It so happened that our party was made up entirely of boys in the two senior classes of the school--the fifth and the sixth. Most of us were landed and dressing, and while so occupied had leisure to watch the performances of those who still remained in the water.

Two of these specially interested us, who were swimming abreast about a hundred yards from the landing-place, evidently racing home. One of these chanced to be a sixth-form boy and the other a fifth, and a sudden impulse seized us of the latter class to cheer our man vehemently, and back him to be the first to reach home. The sixth-form fellows, thus challenged, became equally excited in backing _their_ man, and so, without premeditation, a regular match was made. The two swimmers, hearing our shouts, entered into the spirit of the thing, and a desperate race ensued. They came on, neck and neck, towards us, cheered like mad by their respective supporters, both sides deeming the honour of his form at stake in the event. Within a yard or two of the finish they were still level, when the sixth-form man put on a terrific spurt, to our huge disgust, and just landed himself in a nose ahead.

Of course, we were not going to be beaten thus, and there and then demanded our revenge. Whereupon the company--half of them in a very elementary stage of dressing, and the other half in no stage at all-- resolved itself into a meeting on the spot, and fixed that day week for a formal trial of prowess between the two classes. Three events were to be contested--a half-mile race, a hundred yards, and a duck hunt--and, of course, the winner of two out of the three would carry the day.

Then, in great excitement, we finished our toilets and hurried back to the school, where, naturally, the news of the coming contest spread like wildfire and caused a great commotion. The school divided itself forthwith into two factions, calling themselves the "fivers" and "sixers." The selection of representatives to compete in the races was a matter of almost as much excitement as the races themselves, and I need hardly say it was a proud day for me when I was informed I was to act in the capacity of "hunter" for the fifth in the duck hunt. I accepted the honour with mingled pride and misgivings, and spent a busy week practising for my arduous duties.

Well, the eventful day came at last, and nearly the whole school mustered at Cramp Corner to see the sport. For the half-mile race, which was to come off first, there were only two fellows competing. Our man was Barlow--of paper-chase celebrity--while the sixth were very confident of winning with Chesney, a hero nearly six feet high. Certainly, as the two stood on the spring-board waiting the signal to go, there seemed very little chance for the small Jim against his lanky antagonist, although some of us comforted ourselves with the contemplation of our man's long arms and the muscles in his legs. The course was to be once up Cramp Reach and back--just half a mile. The swimmers were at liberty to swim in any manner they chose, and bound only to one rule--to keep their right side.

They were not long kept waiting in their scanty attire on the planks. The doctor himself gave the signal to start, and at the word they darted with two "swishes" into the water. Jim's head was up first, and off he started at a steady chest-stroke, meaning business. Chesney's dive was a long one, and, considering he had a half-mile race before him, a foolish one, for he taxed his breath at the outset, which might have been avoided, had he thought less about elegance and more about the race. However, he did not seem at first to be any the worse off for he took a slight lead of Jim, going through the water swiftly and easily, with as pretty a side-stroke as any fellow's at the school. In point of style there was no comparison between the two. Jim pounded along monotonously, but steadily, with a square front, preserving all along the same regular stroke, the same pace, and the same dogged expression of countenance with which he had entered the water. His rival, on the other hand, delighted the spectators by all kinds of graceful variety. Now he darted forward on his side, now on his back. Sometimes he refreshed himself by a swift dive, and sometimes he swung his arms like a windmill. In fact, there was scarcely any accomplishment possible in rapid swimming which he did not give us the benefit of.

But it was evident some of his friends did not approve of his style. I heard one of them, running near me, growl, "I wish he would give over his capers and swim like a rational animal."

"Rational or not, he's keeping his lead," said another, and so he was. Plodding Jim, with his everlasting chest-stroke, was half a dozen yards or so behind, and did not look like picking up either. Nevertheless, we cheered him like mad, and kept up our hopes that he would "stay out" the better of the two.

When both turned at the top of the reach, Chesney gave up his fanciful swimming, and, to our alarm, settled down to a side-stroke, which for a time looked powerful and effective. But he had been too confident all along, and now, when he reckoned on shaking off his opponent and getting a clear lead, he found out he was destined to do just the reverse. What long faces the "sixers" pulled as their man began to puff and slacken pace! A half-mile race is no joke, believe me; and so Chesney began to find out. Before half the distance back was covered he showed unmistakable signs of going to pieces, and--a very ominous sign--took to changing from one side to another at very frequent intervals.

Of course we "fivers" howled with delight! Our man had never turned a hair, and was now pulling up at every stroke. As he drew level, Chesney gathered up all his remaining strength for a spurt. But it came to nothing. Jim held on his way almost remorselessly, and headed his man fifty yards from the winning-post; and the next thing we saw was Chesney pulling up dead, and making for the bank in a very feeble condition. Jim quietly swam on amid our frantic plaudits, and landed pretty nearly as fresh as when he started.

So far so good. Loud and long were our exultations, for we had hardly expected to win this race; we had put our chief confidence on the hundred yards, which was to follow. In this race three a side were entered, and of our three we knew no one in the school who could beat Halley at a hundred yards. It was rumoured, indeed, that Payne, one of the three "sixers," had been doing very well in training, but the reports of him were not sufficiently decided to shake our faith in our own hero.

It was an anxious moment as they stood there waiting for the doctor's signal. If only we could win this race, we should have our two races out of the three in hand without further combat.

"Go!" cried the doctor; and at the word six youthful forms plunge into the water, and for a second are lost to sight. But the moral of the half-mile race has evidently been taken to heart by these six boys. They waste neither time nor wind under the surface, but rising quickly, dash to their work. After the first few strokes Payne showed in front, greatly to the delight of the "sixers," who felt that everything depended on their man. We, however, were glad to see our man sticking close up, and keeping stroke for stroke after his rival. Of the others, one only--little Watson--of the sixth seemed to hold his own, and that was a good three yards in the rear of Halley: while the three others fell off hopelessly from the very beginning.

The race was short, but eventful. To our delight, Halley overhauled Payne before half-way was reached, and we felt now absolutely sure of the race. It never occurred to us to think of young Watson at all. But all of a sudden it became apparent that that young man meant business. He changed his front, so to speak, in a very unexpected manner, and just as we were beginning to exult over our man's certain victory, he lay over on his side, and, with a peculiar, jerky side-stroke, began to work his little carcase through the water at a wonderful pace.

Before long he had overtaken his fellow-"sixer," and almost immediately drew up to our champion. We were in consternation. Twenty yards more would end the race, and if only our man could hold out and keep his lead, we were all right. At first it looked as if he would, for, encouraged by our cheers, and seeing his peril, he spurted, and kept a good yard ahead of this audacious young "sixer." But the latter put one spurt on to another, and drew up inch by inch. Ten yards from home they were level; then, for a stroke or two, there was a frantic struggle; then the "sixers" sent forth a shout that must have frightened the very fishes; and well they might, for their man had won the race, a yard and a half clear ahead of our champion.

One race each! And now for the "duck hunt" to settle the match. But before I go further I ought to explain, for the benefit of those who have not been initiated into the mysteries of the pastime, how a duck hunt was managed at Parkhurst.

The part of the river selected was close to the mouth, where the stream at high water is about a quarter of a mile broad. Two boundary boats, one above and one below, were anchored at half a mile distance, and between these limits the hunt was to take place. The "duck" was provided with a little punt, about five feet long and pretty wide, in which he was to escape as best he might from a cutter manned by four rowers and a coxswain, and carrying in its bows a "hunter." As long as he chose, or as long as he could, the duck might dodge his pursuers in his punt; but when once run down he would have to take to the water, and by swimming make good his escape from his pursuers, whose "hunter" would be ready at any moment to jump overboard and secure him. If, however, after twenty minutes the duck still remained uncaught, he was to be adjudged winner.

Such was the work cut out for us on this memorable afternoon. The duck on the present occasion was a sixth-form fellow called Haigh, one of the best divers and swimmers in the school, while, as I have already said, I had been selected to act as hunter on behalf of the fifth.

The duck, arrayed in the slightest of costumes, was not long in putting in an appearance in his little punt, which, being only five feet long, was so light that it seemed to jump through the water at every stroke of the oars; while a single stroke either way sufficed to change its course in a moment. The cutter, in the prow of which I (as slenderly attired as the duck) was stationed, was also a light boat, and of course, with its four rowers, far swifter than the punt; but when it came to turning and dodging, it was, because of its length, comparatively unwieldy and clumsy.

All now was ready for the chase. The duck was to get a minute's clear start, and at the signal off he darted up the stream. The minute seemed to us in the cutter as if it were never going to end, and we watched with dismay the pace at which our lively fugitive was "making tracks."

"Ready all, in the cutter!" cries the doctor. "Off!" and next moment we are flying through the water in full cry. As we gradually pull up to the duck he diminishes his pace, and finally lies on his oars and coolly waits for us.

"Put it on, now!" calls out our coxswain, and our boat shoots forward. When within a few yards, the duck, apparently alive to his danger, dashes his oars into the water and darts ahead. But we are too fast for him. Another two strokes and we shall row him down.

"Now then!" cries our coxswain.

Ah! At a tremendous pace our boat flew forward over the very place where, a second before, our duck had been. But where was he? By a turn of the hand he had twisted round his punt, and as our fellows dug their oars wildly into the water and tried to pull up, there was he, calmly scuttling away in an opposite direction, and laughing at us!

In due time we had swung round, and were after him again, the wiser for this lesson.

Next time we overhauled him we made our approach in a far more gingerly manner. We kept as little way as possible on our boat, determined not to lose time again by overshooting our mark. As long as he could, our duck led us down stream, then, when we had all but caught him, he made a feint of swooping off to the right, a manoeuvre which our coxswain promptly followed. But no sooner was our rudder round than the rogue deftly brought his punt sharp to the left, and so once more escaped us.

This sort of thing went on for a long time, and I was beginning to think the hunt was likely to prove a monotonous affair after all, when our coxswain suddenly called to me down the boat--

"Be ready, Adams."

Then it began gradually to dawn on me our coxswain after all knew what he was about. There was a rather deep bay up near the top of the course, bounded by two prominent little headlands, and into this bay the duck, in a moment of carelessness, had ventured. It was a chance not to be let slip. A few strokes brought our cutter up to the spot, and once there, our cunning coxswain carefully kept us pointed exactly across the bay. The duck, seeing his danger, made a dash to one corner, hoping to avoid us; but he was too late, we were there before him, and before he could double and make the other corner our boat had back-watered to the spot. Thus gradually we hemmed him in closer and closer to the shore, amid the cheers of our friends, until at last it was evident to every one the punt was no longer of use.

Still, he let us sidle close up to him before he abandoned his craft; then with a sudden bound he sprang overboard and disappeared from view.

It was no use going after him, I knew, till I could see where he would rise, and so I waited, ready for a plunge, watching the water where he would probably turn up. Several seconds passed, but there were no signs of him. He was a good diver, we all knew, but this was surely a very long dive. Had an accident happened to him? A minute elapsed, two, and yet he never appeared! We in the boat were aghast; he must have come to grief. Ah! what were the people on the bank laughing at? Could there be some trick? Next instant the coxswain called out, laughing--

"He's hanging on to the rudder; over you go, Adams!"

At the word I slipped overboard and gave chase. And now began an exciting pursuit. Haigh, though perfectly at home in the water, was not a rapid swimmer; but in point of diving and dodging he had a tremendous advantage over any of his pursuers. The moment I got near him, and just as I was thinking to grab him, he would disappear suddenly and come up behind me. He would dive towards the right and come up towards the left. He would dodge me round the boat, or swim round me in circles, but no effort of mine could secure him. The time was getting on, and I was no nearer having him than before. With all his dodges, too, he never seemed to take his eyes off me for an instant, either above or below the water.

Once, as I was giving him chase, he suddenly dived, and the next intimation I had of his whereabouts was a sly pinch of my big toe as he came up behind me. This was adding insult to injury, so I dashed round, and made at him. Again he dived; and this time, without waiting an instant, I dived too. I could see him distinctly under the water, scuttling away in a downward direction just below me. Shutting my lips tight, I dug my way down after him; but, alas! under water I was no match for Haigh. I felt an irresistible temptation to gasp; my nose smarted, and the water round my head seemed like lead. As quickly as possible I turned my hands up, and struck out for the surface.

What ages it seemed before I reached it! A second--half a second longer, and I should have shipped a mouthful, perhaps a chestful of water. I reached the surface at last, and, once above water, felt all right again. I looked about anxiously for my duck. But he was still down below. I reckoned, from the direction in which he had dived, that he would not be able to go far to either side, and therefore would rise close to me, probably exhausted, and if so, I had a good chance at last of catching him. So I waited and watched the place, but he never came.

Remembering my own sensations, and how nearly I had come to grief, I took a sudden fright, and concluding he must be in straits down below, shouted to the boat to come to the place, and then dived. I groped about, and looked in all directions, but saw no sign of him, and finally, in a terrible fright, made once more for the surface.

The first thing I was conscious of, on getting my head up, was a great shouting and laughing, and then I caught sight of that abominable duck, who had come up behind me, and had been laughing all the while behind my back, while I had been hunting for him in a far more serious way than I need ever have done!

Before I could turn and make towards him "Time!" was shouted from the bank; and so the Parkhurst Swimming Contest ended in a lamentable, though not disgraceful, defeat of the "fivers."


(The end)
Talbot Baines Reed's short story: "Fivers" Versus "Sixers" At Parkhurst

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