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A short story by Talbot Baines Reed

Athletic Sports At Parkhurst

Title:     Athletic Sports At Parkhurst
Author: Talbot Baines Reed [More Titles by Reed]

The last Saturday before the summer holidays was invariably a great day at Parkhurst. The outdoor exercises of the previous ten months culminated then in the annual athletic sports, which made a regular field-day for the whole school. Boys who had "people" living within a reasonable distance always did their best to get them over for the day; the doctor--an old athlete himself--generally invited his own party of friends; and a large number of spectators from Parkhurst village and the neighbourhood were sure to put in an appearance, and help to give importance to the occasion. Athletic sports without spectators (at least, so we boys thought) would be a tame affair, and we were sure to get through our day's performances all the better for a large muster of outsiders on the ground.

The occasion I am about to recall was specially interesting to me, as it was the first athletic meeting in which I, a small boy just entering my teens, ever figured. I was only down to run in one of the races, and that was the three-legged race; and yet I believe there was not a boy in the school so excited at the prospect of these sports as I was. I thought the time would never come, and was in positive despair when on the day before it a little white cloud ventured to appear in the blue sky. A wet day, so I thought, would have been as great a calamity as losing the whole circle of my relatives, and almost as bad as having my favourite dog stolen, or my fishing-rod smashed; and I made a regular fool of myself in the morning of the eventful day by getting up first at two a.m., then at three, then at four, and four or five times more, to take observations out of the window, till at last my bedfellow declared he would stand it no longer, and that since I was up, I should stay up.

Ah! he was an unsympathetic duffer, and knew nothing of the raptures of winning a three-legged race.

Well, the day was a splendid one after all--a little hot, perhaps, but the ground was in grand order, and hosts of people would be sure to turn up. My race yoke-fellow and I went out quite early for a final spin over the course, and found one or two of the more diligent of our schoolfellows taking a similar advantage of the "lie-abeds." Of course, as _we_ were of opinion that the three-legged race was the most important and attractive of all the day's contests, we paid very little heed to what others were doing, but sought out a retired corner for ourselves, where, after tying our inside legs together, and putting our arms round one another's necks in the most approved fashion, we set to and tore along as fast as we could, and practised starts and falls, and pick-ups and spurts, and I don't know what else, till we felt that if, after all, we were to be beaten, it would not be our faults. With which comfortable reflection we loosed our bonds and strolled back to breakfast.

Here, of course, the usual excitement prevailed, and one topic engrossed all the conversation. I sat between a fellow who was in for the Junior 100 yards, and another who was down for the "hurdles." Opposite me was a hero whom every one expected to win in throwing the cricket-ball, and next to him a new boy who had astonished every one by calmly putting his name down for the mile race before he had been two hours at Parkhurst. In such company you may fancy our meal was a lively one, and, as most of us were in training, a very careful one.

The first race was to be run at twelve, and we thought it a great hardship that the lower school was ordered to attend classes on this of all days from nine to eleven. Now I am older, it dawns on me that this was a most wholesome regulation; for had we small chaps been allowed to run riot all the morning, we should have been completely done up, and fit for nothing when the races really began. We did not do much work, I am afraid, at our desks that morning, and the masters were not particularly strict, for a wonder. The one thing we had to do was to keep our seats and restrain our ardour, and that was no easy task.

Eleven came at last, and off we rushed to the mysteries of the toilet. What would athletic sports be like without flannel shirts and trousers, or ribbons and canvas shoes? At any rate, we believed in the importance of these accessories, and were not long in arraying ourselves accordingly. I could not help noticing, however, as we sallied forth into the field, that fine feathers do not always make fine birds. There was Tom Sampson, for instance, the biggest duffer that ever thought he could run a step, got up in the top of the fashion, in bran-new togs, and a silk belt, and the most gorgeous of scarlet sashes across his shoulders; while Hooker, who was as certain as Greenwich time to win the quarter-mile, had on nothing but his old (and not very white) cricket clothes, and no sash at all. And there was another thing I noticed about these old hands: they behaved in the laziest of manners. They sprawled on the grass or sat on the benches, appearing disinclined for the slightest exertion; while others, less experienced, took preliminary canters along the tracks, or showed off over the hurdles. Fine fellows, no doubt, they thought themselves; but they had reason to be sorry for this waste of energy before the day was out.

Programmes! With what excitement I seized mine and glanced down it! There it was! "Number 12. Three-legged Race, 100 yards, for boys under 15. 1, Trotter and Walker (pink); 2, White and Benson (green); 3, Adams and Slipshaw (blue)." Reader, have you ever seen your name in print for the first time? Then you may imagine my sensations!

Things now begin to look like business. The doctor has turned up, and a party of ladies. The visitors' enclosure is fast filling up, and there is a fair show of carriages behind. Those big fellows in the tall hats are old Parkhurstians, come to see the young generation go through its paces, and that little knot of men talking together in the middle of the ground consists of the starter, judge, and umpire. Not a few of us, too, turn our eyes wistfully to that tent over yonder, where we know are concealed the rewards of this day's combats; and in my secret heart I find myself wondering more than once how it will sound to hear the names "Adams and Slipshaw" called upon to receive the first prize for the three-legged race.

Hark! There goes a bell, and we are really about to begin. "Number 1, Junior 100 yards, for boys under 12," and 24 names entered! Slipshaw and 1, both over 12, go off to have a look at "the kids," and a queer sight it is. Of course, they can't all, 24 of them, run abreast, and so they are being started in heats, six at a time. The first lot is just starting. How eagerly they toe the line and look up at the starter!

"Are--" he begins, and two of them start, and have to be called back. "Are you ready?" he says. Three of them are off now, and can't understand that they are to wait for the word "Off!" But at last the starter gets to the end of his speech and has them fairly off. The little fellows go at it as if their lives depended on it. Their mothers and big brothers are looking on, their "chums" are shouting to them along the course, and the winning-post is not very far ahead. On they go, but not in a level row. One has taken the lead, and the others straggle behind him in a queer procession. It doesn't last long. Even a Junior 100 yards must come to an end at last, and the winner runs, puffing, into the judge's arms, half a dozen yards ahead of the next boy, and 50 yards ahead of the last. The other three heats follow, and then, amid great excitement, the final heat is run off, and the best man wins.

For the Senior 100 yards which followed only three were entered, and each of these had his band of confident admirers. Slipshaw and I were very "sweet" on Jackson, who was monitor of our dormitory, and often gave us the leavings of his muffins, but Ranger was a lighter-built fellow, and seemed very active, while Bruce's long legs looked not at all pleasant for his opponents. The starter had no trouble with them, but it was no wonder they all three looked anxious as they turned their faces to him; for in a 100 yards' race the start is everything, as poor long-legged Bruce found out, for he slipped on the first spring, and never recovered his lost ground. Between Ranger and Jackson the race was a fine one to within twenty yards of home, when our favourite's "fat" began to tell on him, and though he stuck gallantly to work he could not prevail over the nimble Ranger, who slipped past him and won easily by a yard.

This was a damper for Slipshaw and me, who, as in duty bound, attended our champion back to where he had left his coat, and so missed the throwing of the cricket-ball, which was easily won by the favourite.

But though we missed that event, we had no notion of missing the high jump, which promised to be the best thing (next to the three-legged race) that day. Four fellows were in for it, and of these Shute and Catherall were two of the best jumpers Parkhurst had ever had; and it was well known all over the school that in practice each had jumped exactly 5 foot 4 inches. Who would win now? The two outsiders were soon got rid of, one at 4 foot 10 inches, and the other at 5 foot; and the real interest of the event began when Shute and Catherall were left alone face to face with the bar. Shute was a tall fellow, of slight make and excellent spring. Catherall was short, but with the bounce of an india-rubber ball in him, and a wonderful knack of tucking his feet up under him in jumping. It was a pretty sight to watch them advance half-inch by half-inch, from 5 foot to 5 foot 3 inches. There seemed absolutely nothing to choose between them, they both appeared to clear the bar so easily. At 5 foot 31/2 inches. Shute missed his first jump, greatly to the dismay of his adherents, who saw Catherall clear it with complete ease. If he were to miss the second time, he would be out of it, and that would be a positive tragedy. So we all watched his next jump with breathless anxiety. He stood looking at the bar for a second or two, as if doubting his own chance. Then his face cleared up, and he sprang towards it. To our delight he rose beautifully and cleared it easily. At 5 foot 4 inches both missed the first jump, but both cleared it at the second trial. And now for the tug of war. Both had accomplished the utmost he had ever hitherto achieved, and it remained to be seen whether the excitement of the occasion would assist either or each to excel himself. Shute came to grief altogether at 5 foot 41/2 inches, and again, to our dismay, Catherall bounded over the bar at his first effort. Shute's friends were in despair, and if that hero had been a nervous fellow he might have been the same. But he was a very cool fish, and instead of losing his nerve, sat down on the grass and tightened the lace of his shoe. Then he slowly rose to his feet and faced his task. At that moment I forgot all about the three-legged race, and gave my whole heart up to the issue of this jump. He started to run at last, slow at first, but gathering pace for his final leap. Amid breathless silence he sprang forward and reached the bar, and then--then he coolly pulled up and walked back again. This looked bad; but better to pull up in time than spoil his chance. He kept us waiting an age before he was ready to start again, but at last he turned for his last effort. We could tell long before he got to the bar that this time, at any rate, he was going to jump, whether he missed or no. Jump he did, and, to our unbounded delight, just cleared the bar--so narrowly that it almost shook as he skimmed over it. That was the end of the high jump; for though both attempted the 5 foot 5 inches, neither accomplished it, and the contest was declared to be a dead heat.

After this several unimportant races followed, which I need hardly describe. Number 12 on the list was getting near, and I was beginning to feel a queer, hungry sort of sensation which I didn't exactly like. However, the mile was to be run before our turn came, and that would give me time to recover.

For this race we had many of us looked with a curious interest, on account of the new boy, of whom I have spoken, being one of the competitors in it. He didn't look a likely sort of fellow to win a race, certainly, for he was slightly bow-legged and thick-set, and what seemed to us a much more ominous sign, was not even arrayed in flannels, but in an ordinary white shirt and light cloth trousers. However, he took his place very confidently at the starting-post, together with three rivals, wearing respectively black, red, and yellow for their colours.

The start for a mile race is not such a headlong affair as for a hundred yards, and consequently at the word "Off!" there was comparatively little excitement among us spectators.

Yellow went to the front almost immediately, with red and black close behind, while the new boy seemed to confirm our unfavourable impression by keeping considerably in the rear. The mile was divided into three laps round the field, and at the end of the first the positions of the four were the same as at starting. But it was soon evident yellow was not destined to continue his lead, for before the half distance was accomplished, red and black, who all along had been neck and neck, were up to him and past him, and by the end of the lap the new boy had also overtaken him.

And now we became considerably more interested in the progress of this new boy, who, it suddenly occurred to us, seemed to be going very easily, which was more than could be said of red, who was dropping a little to the rear of black. A big boy near me said, "That fellow's got the wind of a balloon," and I immediately began to think he was not far wrong. For in this third lap, when two of the others were slacking pace, and when the third was only holding his own, the new boy freshened up remarkably. We could watch him crawl up gradually nearer and nearer to red, till a shout proclaimed him to be second in the running. But black was still well ahead, and in the short space left, as the big boy near me said, "He could hardly collar his man."

But see! The fellow is positively beginning to tear along! He seems fresher than when he started. "Look out. Black!" shout twenty voices. All very well to say, "Look out!" Black is used up, and certainly cannot respond to this tremendous spurt. Thirty yards from home the new boy is up to his man, and before the winning-post is reached he is a clear ten yards ahead.

"Bellows did it," said the big boy; "look at his chest"; and then for the first time I noticed where the secret of this hero's triumph lay.

But, horrors! the next race is Number 12, and Slipshaw and I scuttle off as hard as we can go, to get ready.

How miserable I felt then! I hated athletic sports, and detested "three-legged races." As we emerged from the tent, we and the other two couples, ambling along on our respective three legs, a shout of laughter greeted our appearance. I, for one, didn't see anything to laugh at, just then.

"Adams," said Slipshaw, as we reached the starting-place, "take it easy, old man, and mind you don't go over."

"All right," said I, feeling very much inclined to go over at that instant. Then that awful starter began his little speech.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"Not at all," inwardly ejaculated I.

"Off!" he cried; and almost before I knew where I was, Slipshaw and I were hopping along on our three legs amid the cheers of the crowd.

"Steady!" said he, as I stepped out rather _too_ fast.

Alas! we were last. The other two couples were pounding along ahead at a wonderful pace.

"Steady!" growled Slipshaw again, as I began to try to run, and nearly capsized him.

You may laugh, reader, but it was no joke, that three-legged race. The others ahead of us showed no signs of flagging; they were going hard, one couple close at the heels of the other, and we a full five yards behind. I was giving one despairing thought to the pots and prizes in the tent, when a great roar of laughter almost made me forget which foot to put forward.

What could it be?--and Slipshaw was laughing too!

"Steady, now," he said, "and come along!"

The laughter continued, and looking before me, I suddenly detected its cause. The leading couple in a moment of over-confidence had attempted to go too fast, and had come on their noses on the path, and the second couple, too close behind them, had not had time to avoid the obstacle, but had plunged headlong on to the top of them! It was all right now! Slipshaw and I trotted triumphantly past the prostrate heap, and after all won our prize! You may fancy I was too excited to think of much else after that, except indeed the hurdle race, which was most exciting, and won most cleverly by Catherall, who, though he came to grief at the last hurdle, was able to pick himself up in time to rush in and win the race by a neck from the new boy, whom we found to be almost as good at jumping as he was at running.

Then followed a two-mile race--rather dull to watch--and with that the sports were at an end.

Need I say how proudly Slipshaw and I marched up arm-in-arm to receive the prize for our race, which consisted of a bat for me and a telescope for my companion?--or how the new boy was cheered?--or how Shute and Catherall were applauded?

Before I left Parkhurst I was an old hand at athletic sports, but I don't think I ever thought any of them so interesting as the day on which Slipshaw and I, with our legs tied together, came in first in the three-legged race!

[The end]
Talbot Baines Reed's short story: Athletic Sports At Parkhurst