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Cambridgeshire, March 1877
EDWARD CLARK WAS DISGUSTED with himself.
It was one thing to do a man a favor. It was another entirely to take it this far—for Edward to shoulder his way through the shouting crowd on the banks of the river, jostling with other men for position. And for what purpose? So he could see a pair of boats come around the bend of the Thames? He hadn’t even known he was acquainted with a member of the Cambridge crew until he’d glanced at a newspaper this morning.
And yet here he was. Waiting. Like everyone around him, he leaned forward intently. Like them, he caught his breath when he glimpsed the first boat. But the crew on board was attired in dark blue, and cries of “Oxford, Oxford!” rose in a tumultuous roar around him. He sank back on his heels—but before he had a chance to relax, another boat came into view, rowed by men in light blue. Competing shouts rang out.
Edward didn’t cheer. He focused on the Cambridge boat intently.
It had been almost a decade since he’d seen Stephen Shaughnessy. Back then, Stephen had been a boy. An annoyance, as ever-present as a mosquito. Edward had expected to feel a wave of nostalgia when the man came into sight. Maybe the bitter tug of guilt.
But he couldn’t put a name to the feelings that assailed him—dark, indistinct things that pulled at him uncomfortably, leaving his muscles tensed and a phantom itch in his smallest finger. They weren’t proper emotions at all. He had only the sense that it was about to storm, and yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Stephen—Edward knew he was the third man in the Cambridge boat from the papers—was nothing but an indistinct blot of dark hair and moving muscle. Scarcely a reason for Edward to leave his comfortable home in Toulouse, to risk the complacent life he’d fashioned for himself.
He’d done it anyway. He’d tried to eradicate all his idealism, but apparently he did still hold on to a few foolish principles.
Around him, the crowd’s expectant cheers grew louder, more boisterous. The race was close; the light blue Cambridge shirts crept up on Oxford. Edward felt like a dark rock, solid and unmoving in the midst of a froth of excitement.
Nothing represented his former brave, irrelevant principles more completely than the people mustered along the banks of the river. Everyone else concentrated on what was—for the moment—the most important thing in the universe: the men in their boats, struggling for speed in the choppy water. Here, there were no ethical morasses. In a universe of uncertainty, this one contest was set in stone. There was only black and white, right and wrong, Cambridge and Oxford.
And Oxford was ahead by a quarter length.
Not everyone was excited. To his right, back a few paces, a woman stood, scarcely hiding her boredom. She was dressed in a fussy, lacy gown that made her look like a sugar-spun confection. Pretty enough to look at, but he suspected she would hurt his teeth if he tried to partake. She clung to the arm of a florid-faced man, and glanced riverward every half minute or so—the certain look of a woman who’d been dragged out here and was doing her best to feign interest.