The fight in the coach-house
The curt announcement was followed by a moment of silent surprise, and then by a general shout of laughter. There might be argument as to who was champion at each weight; but there could be no question that all the champions of all the weights were seated round the tables. An audacious challenge which embraced them one and all, without regard to size or age, could hardly be regarded otherwise than as a joke - but it was a joke which might be a dear one for the joker. “Is this genuine?” asked my uncle. “Yes, Sir Charles,” answered the landlord; “the man is waiting below.” “It’s a kid!” cried several of the fighting-men. “Some cove is a gammonin’ us.” “Don’t you believe it,” answered the landlord. “He’s a real slap-up Corinthian, by his dress; and he means what he says, or else I ain’t no judge of a man.” My uncle whispered for a few moments with the Prince of Wales. “Well, gentlemen,” said he, at last, “the night is still young, and if any of you should wish to show the company a little of your skill, you could not ask a better opportunity.” “What weight is he, Bill?” asked Jem Belcher. “He’s close on six foot, and I should put him well into the thirteen stones when he’s buffed.” “Heavy metal!” cried Jackson. “Who takes him on?” They all wanted to, from nine-stone Dutch Sam upwards. The air was filled with their hoarse shouts and their arguments why each should be the chosen one. To fight when they were flushed with wine and ripe for mischief - above all, to fight before so select a company with the Prince at the ringside, was a chance which did not often come in their way. Only Jackson, Belcher, Mendoza, and one or two others of the senior and more famous men remained silent, thinking it beneath their dignity that they should condescend to so irregular a bye-battle. “Well, you can’t all fight him,” remarked Jackson, when the babel had died away. “It’s for the chairman to choose.” “Perhaps your Royal Highness has a preference,” said my uncle. “By Jove, I’d take him on myself if my position was different,” said the Prince, whose face was growing redder and his eyes more glazed. “You’ve seen me with the mufflers, Jackson! You know my form!” “I’ve seen your Royal Highness, and I have felt your Royal Highness,” said the courtly Jackson. “Perhaps Jem Belcher would give us an exhibition,” said my uncle. Belcher smiled and shook his handsome head. “There’s my brother Tom here has never been blooded in London yet, sir. He might make a fairer match of it.” “Give him over to me!” roared Joe Berks. “I’ve been waitin’ for a turn all evenin’, an’ I’ll fight any man that tries to take my place. ’E’s my meat, my masters. Leave ’im to me if you want to see ‘ow a calf’s ’ead should be dressed. If you put Tom Belcher before me I’ll fight Tom Belcher, an’ for that matter I’ll fight Jem Belcher, or Bill Belcher, or any other Belcher that ever came out of Bristol.” It was clear that Berks had got to the stage when he must fight some one. His heavy face was gorged and the veins stood out on his low forehead, while his fierce grey eyes looked viciously from man to man in quest of a quarrel. His great red hands were bunched into huge, gnarled fists, and he shook one of them menacingly as his drunken gaze swept round the tables. “I think you’ll agree with me, gentlemen, that Joe Berks would be all the better for some fresh air and exercise,” said my uncle. “With the concurrence of His Royal Highness and of the company, I shall select him as our champion on this occasion.” “You do me proud,” cried the fellow, staggering to his feet and pulling at his coat. “If I don’t glut him within the five minutes, may I never see Shropshire again.” “Wait a bit, Berks,” cried several of the amateurs. “Where’s it going to be held?” “Where you like, masters. I’ll fight him in a sawpit, or on the outside of a coach if it please you. Put us toe to toe, and leave the rest with me.” “They can’t fight here with all this litter,” said my uncle. “Where shall it be?” “’Pon my soul, Tregellis,” cried the Prince, “I think our unknown friend might have a word to say upon that matter. He’ll be vastly ill-used if you don’t let him have his own choice of conditions.” “You are right, sir. We must have him up.” “That’s easy enough,” said the landlord, “for here he comes through the doorway.” I glanced round and had a side view of a tall and well-dressed young man in a long, brown travelling coat and a black felt hat. The next instant he had turned and I had clutched with both my hands on to Champion Harrison’s arm. “Harrison!” I gasped. “It’s Boy Jim!” And yet somehow the possibility and even the probability of it had occurred to me from the beginning, and I believe that it had to Harrison also, for I had noticed that his face grew grave and troubled from the very moment that there was talk of the stranger below. Now, the instant that the buzz of surprise and admiration caused by Jim’s face and figure had died away, Harrison was on his feet, gesticulating in his excitement. “It’s my nephew Jim, gentlemen,” he cried. “He’s not twenty yet, and it’s no doing of mine that he should be here.” “Let him alone, Harrison,” cried Jackson. “He’s big enough to take care of himself.” “This matter has gone rather far,” said my uncle. “I think, Harrison, that you are too good a sportsman to prevent your nephew from showing whether he takes after his uncle.” “It’s very different from me,” cried Harrison, in great distress. “But I’ll tell you what I’ll do, gentlemen. I never thought to stand up in a ring again, but I’ll take on Joe Berks with pleasure, just to give a bit o’ sport to this company.” Boy Jim stepped across and laid his hand upon the prize-fighter’s shoulder. “It must be so, uncle,” I heard him whisper. “I am sorry to go against your wishes, but I have made up my mind, and I must carry it through.” Harrison shrugged his huge shoulders. “Jim, Jim, you don’t know what you are doing! But I’ve heard you speak like that before, boy, and I know that it ends in your getting your way.” “I trust, Harrison, that your opposition is withdrawn?” said my uncle. “Can I not take his place?” “You would not have it said that I gave a challenge and let another carry it out?” whispered Jim. “This is my one chance. For Heaven’s sake don’t stand in my way.” The smith’s broad and usually stolid face was all working with his conflicting emotions. At last he banged his fist down upon the table. “It’s no fault of mine!” he cried. “It was to be and it is. Jim, boy, for the Lord’s sake remember your distances, and stick to out-fightin’ with a man that could give you a stone.” “I was sure that Harrison would not stand in the way of sport,” said my uncle. “We are glad that you have stepped up, that we might consult you as to the arrangements for giving effect to your very sporting challenge.” “Whom am I to fight?” asked Jim, looking round at the company, who were now all upon their feet. “Young man, you’ll know enough of who you ’ave to fight before you are through with it,” cried Berks, lurching heavily through the crowd. “You’ll need a friend to swear to you before I’ve finished, d’ye see?” Jim looked at him with disgust in every line of his face. “Surely you are not going to set me to fight a drunken man!” said he. “Where is Jem Belcher?” “My name, young man.” “I should be glad to try you, if I may.” “You must work up to me, my lad. You don’t take a ladder at one jump, but you do it rung by rung. Show yourself to be a match for me, and I’ll give you a turn.” “I’m much obliged to you.” “And I like the look of you, and wish you well,” said Belcher, holding out his hand. They were not unlike each other, either in face or figure, though the Bristol man was a few years the older, and a murmur of critical admiration was heard as the two tall, lithe figures, and keen, clean-cut faces were contrasted. “Have you any choice where the fight takes place?” asked my uncle. “I am in your hands, sir,” said Jim. “Why not go round to the Five’s Court?” suggested Sir John Lade. “Yes, let us go to the Five’s Court.” But this did not at all suit the views of the landlord, who saw in this lucky incident a chance of reaping a fresh harvest from his spendthrift company. “If it please you,” he cried, “there is no need to go so far. My coach-house at the back of the yard is empty, and a better place for a mill you’ll never find.” There was a general shout in favour of the coach-house, and those who were nearest the door began to slip through, in the hope of scouring the best places. My stout neighbour, Bill Warr, pulled Harrison to one side. “I’d stop it if I were you,” he whispered. “I would if I could. It’s no wish of mine that he should fight. But there’s no turning him when once his mind is made up.” All his own fights put together had never reduced the pugilist to such a state of agitation. “Wait on ’im yourself, then, and chuck up the sponge when things begin to go wrong. You know Joe Berks’s record?” “He’s since my time.” “Well, ’e’s a terror, that’s all. It’s only Belcher that can master ’im. You see the man for yourself, six foot, fourteen stone, and full of the devil. Belcher’s beat ’im twice, but the second time ’e ’ad all ’is work to do it.” “Well, well, we’ve got to go through with it. You’ve not seen Boy Jim put his mawleys up, or maybe you’d think better of his chances. When he was short of sixteen he licked the Cock of the South Downs, and he’s come on a long way since then.” The company was swarming through the door and clattering down the stair, so we followed in the stream. A fine rain was falling, and the yellow lights from the windows glistened upon the wet cobblestones of the yard. How welcome was that breath of sweet, damp air after the fetid atmosphere of the supper-room. At the other end of the yard was an open door sharply outlined by the gleam of lanterns within, and through this they poured, amateurs and fighting-men jostling each other in their eagerness to get to the front. For my own part, being a smallish man, I should have seen nothing had I not found an upturned bucket in a corner, upon which I perched myself with the wall at my back. It was a large room with a wooden floor and an open square in the ceiling, which was fringed with the heads of the ostlers and stable boys who were looking down from the harness-room above. A carriage-lamp was slung in each corner, and a very large stable-lantern hung from a rafter in the centre. A coil of rope had been brought in, and under the direction of Jackson four men had been stationed to hold it. “What space do you give them?” asked my uncle. “Twenty-four, as they are both big ones, sir.” “Very good, and half-minutes between rounds, I suppose? I’ll umpire if Sir Lothian Hume will do the same, and you can hold the watch and referee, Jackson.” With great speed and exactness every preparation was rapidly made by these experienced men. Mendoza and Dutch Sam were commissioned to attend to Berks, while Belcher and Jack Harrison did the same for Boy Jim. Sponges, towels, and some brandy in a bladder were passed over the heads of the crowd for the use of the seconds. “Here’s our man,” cried Belcher. “Come along, Berks, or we’ll go to fetch you.” Jim appeared in the ring stripped to the waist, with a coloured handkerchief tied round his middle. A shout of admiration came from the spectators as they looked upon the fine lines of his figure, and I found myself roaring with the rest. His shoulders were sloping rather than bulky, and his chest was deep rather than broad, but the muscle was all in the right place, rippling down in long, low curves from neck to shoulder, and from shoulder to elbow. His work at the anvil had developed his arms to their utmost, and his healthy country living gave a sleek gloss to his ivory skin, which shone in the lamplight. His expression was full of spirit and confidence, and he wore a grim sort of half-smile which I had seen many a time in our boyhood, and which meant, I knew, that his pride had set iron hard, and that his senses would fail him long before his courage. Joe Berks in the meanwhile had swaggered in and stood with folded arms between his seconds in the opposite corner. His face had none of the eager alertness of his opponent, and his skin, of a dead white, with heavy folds about the chest and ribs, showed, even to my inexperienced eyes, that he was not a man who should fight without training. A life of toping and ease had left him flabby and gross. On the other hand, he was famous for his mettle and for his hitting power, so that, even in the face of the advantages of youth and condition, the betting was three to one in his favour. His heavy-jowled, clean-shaven face expressed ferocity as well as courage, and he stood with his small, blood-shot eyes fixed viciously upon Jim, and his lumpy shoulders stooping a little forwards, like a fierce hound training on a leash. The hubbub of the betting had risen until it drowned all other sounds, men shouting their opinions from one side of the coach-house to the other, and waving their hands to attract attention, or as a sign that they had accepted a wager. Sir John Lade, standing just in front of me, was roaring out the odds against Jim, and laying them freely with those who fancied the appearance of the unknown. “I’ve seen Berks fight,” said he to the Honourable Berkeley Craven. “No country hawbuck is going to knock out a man with such a record.” “He may be a country hawbuck,” the other answered, “but I have been reckoned a judge of anything either on two legs or four, and I tell you, Sir John, that I never saw a man who looked better bred in my life. Are you still laying against him?” “Three to one.” “Have you once in hundreds.” “Very good, Craven! There they go! Berks! Berks! Bravo! Berks! Bravo! I think, Craven, that I shall trouble you for that hundred.” The two men had stood up to each other, Jim as light upon his feet as a goat, with his left well out and his right thrown across the lower part of his chest, while Berks held both arms half extended and his feet almost level, so that he might lead off with either side. For an instant they looked each other over, and then Berks, ducking his head and rushing in with a handover-hand style of hitting, bored Jim down into his corner. It was a backward slip rather than a knockdown, but a thin trickle of blood was seen at the corner of Jim’s mouth. In an instant the seconds had seized their men and carried them back into their corners. “Do you mind doubling our bet?” said Berkeley Craven, who was craning his neck to get a glimpse of Jim. “Four to one on Berks! Four to one on Berks!” cried the ringsiders. “The odds have gone up, you see. Will you have four to one in hundreds?” “Very good, Sir John.” “You seem to fancy him more for having been knocked down.” “He was pushed down, but he stopped every blow, and I liked the look on his face as he got up again.” “Well, it’s the old stager for me. Here they come again! He’s got a pretty style, and he covers his points well, but it isn’t the best looking that wins.” They were at it again, and I was jumping about upon my bucket in my excitement. It was evident that Berks meant to finish the battle off-hand, whilst Jim, with two of the most experienced men in England to advise him, was quite aware that his correct tactics were to allow the ruffian to expend his strength and wind in vain. There was something horrible in the ferocious energy of Berks’s hitting, every blow fetching a grunt from him as he smashed it in, and after each I gazed at Jim, as I have gazed at a stranded vessel upon the Sussex beach when wave after wave has roared over it, fearing each time that I should find it miserably mangled. But still the lamplight shone upon the lad’s clear, alert face, upon his well-opened eyes and his firm-set mouth, while the blows were taken upon his forearm or allowed, by a quick duck of the head, to whistle over his shoulder. But Berks was artful as well as violent. Gradually he worked Jim back into an angle of the ropes from which there was no escape, and then, when he had him fairly penned, he sprang upon him like a tiger. What happened was so quick that I cannot set its sequence down in words, but I saw Jim make a quick stoop under the swinging arms, and at the same instant I heard a sharp, ringing smack, and there was Jim dancing about in the middle of the ring, and Berks lying upon his side on the floor, with his hand to his eye. How they roared! Prize-fighters, Corinthians, Prince, stable-boy, and landlord were all shouting at the top of their lungs. Old Buckhorse was skipping about on a box beside me, shrieking out criticisms and advice in strange, obsolete ring-jargon, which no one could understand. His dull eyes were shining, his parchment face was quivering with excitement, and his strange musical call rang out above all the hubbub. The two men were hurried to their corners, one second sponging them down and the other flapping a towel in front of their face; whilst they, with arms hanging down and legs extended, tried to draw all the air they could into their lungs in the brief space allowed them. “Where’s your country hawbuck now?” cried Craven, triumphantly. “Did ever you witness anything more masterly?” “He’s no Johnny Raw, certainly,” said Sir John, shaking his head. “What odds are you giving on Berks, Lord Sole?” “Two to one.” “I take you twice in hundreds.” “Here’s Sir John Lade hedging!” cried my uncle, smiling back at us over his shoulder. “Time!” said Jackson, and the two men sprang forward to the mark again. This round was a good deal shorter than that which had preceded it. Berks’s orders evidently were to close at any cost, and so make use of his extra weight and strength before the superior condition of his antagonist could have time to tell. On the other hand, Jim, after his experience in the last round, was less disposed to make any great exertion to keep him at arms’ length. He led at Berks’s head, as he came rushing in, and missed him, receiving a severe body blow in return, which left the imprint of four angry knuckles above his ribs. As they closed Jim caught his opponent’s bullet head under his arm for an instant, and put a couple of half-arm blows in; but the prize-fighter pulled him over by his weight, and the two fell panting side by side upon the ground. Jim sprang up, however, and walked over to his corner, while Berks, distressed by his evening’s dissipation, leaned one arm upon Mendoza and the other upon Dutch Sam as he made for his seat. “Bellows to mend!” cried Jem Belcher. “Where’s the four to one now?” “Give us time to get the lid off our pepper-box,” said Mendoza. “We mean to make a night of it.” “Looks like it,” said Jack Harrison. “He’s shut one of his eyes already. Even money that my boy wins it!” “How much?” asked several voices. “Two pound four and threepence,” cried Harrison, counting out all his worldly wealth. “Time!” said Jackson once more. They were both at the mark in an instant, Jim as full of sprightly confidence as ever, and Berks with a fixed grin upon his bull-dog face and a most vicious gleam in the only eye which was of use to him. His half-minute had not enabled him to recover his breath, and his huge, hairy chest was rising and falling with a quick, loud panting like a spent hound. “Go in, boy! Bustle him!” roared Harrison and Belcher. “Get your wind, Joe; get your wind!” cried the Jews. So now we had a reversal of tactics, for it was Jim who went in to hit with all the vigour of his young strength and unimpaired energy, while it was the savage Berks who was paying his debt to Nature for the many injuries which he had done her. He gasped, he gurgled, his face grew purple in his attempts to get his breath, while with his long left arm extended and his right thrown across, he tried to screen himself from the attack of his wiry antagonist. “Drop when he hits!” cried Mendoza. “Drop and have a rest!” But there was no shyness or shiftiness about Berks’s fighting. He was always a gallant ruffian, who disdained to go down before an antagonist as long as his legs would sustain him. He propped Jim off with his long arm, and though the lad sprang lightly round him looking for an opening, he was held off as if a forty-inch bar of iron were between them. Every instant now was in favour of Berks, and already his breathing was easier and the bluish tinge fading from his face. Jim knew that his chance of a speedy victory was slipping away from him, and he came back again and again as swift as a flash to the attack without being able to get past the passive defence of the trained fighting-man. It was at such a moment that ringcraft was needed, and luckily for Jim two masters of it were at his back. “Get your left on his mark, boy,” they shouted, “then go to his head with the right.” Jim heard and acted on the instant. Plunk! came his left just where his antagonist’s ribs curved from his breast-bone. The force of the blow was half broken by Berks’s elbow, but it served its purpose of bringing forward his head. Spank! went the right, with the clear, crisp sound of two billiard balls clapping together, and Berks reeled, flung up his arms, spun round, and fell in a huge, fleshy heap upon the floor. His seconds were on him instantly, and propped him up in a sitting position, his head rolling helplessly from one shoulder to the other, and finally toppling backwards with his chin pointed to the ceiling. Dutch Sam thrust the brandy-bladder between his teeth, while Mendoza shook him savagely and howled insults in his ear, but neither the spirits nor the sense of injury could break into that serene insensibility. “Time!” was duly called, and the Jews, seeing that the affair was over, let their man’s head fall back with a crack upon the floor, and there he lay, his huge arms and legs asprawl, whilst the Corinthians and fighting-men crowded past him to shake the hand of his conqueror. For my part, I tried also to press through the throng, but it was no easy task for one of the smallest and weakest men in the room. On all sides of me I heard a brisk discussion from amateurs and professionals of Jim’s performance and of his prospects. “He’s the best bit of new stuff that I’ve seen since Jem Belcher fought his first fight with Paddington Jones at Wormwood Scrubbs four years ago last April,” said Berkeley Craven. “You’ll see him with the belt round his waist before he’s five-and-twenty, or I am no judge of a man.” “That handsome face of his has cost me a cool five hundred,” grumbled Sir John Lade. “Who’d have thought he was such a punishing hitter?” “For all that,” said another, “I am confident that if Joe Berks had been sober he would have eaten him. Besides, the lad was in training, and the other would burst like an overdone potato if he were hit. I never saw a man so soft, or with his wind in such condition. Put the men in training, and it’s a horse to a hen on the bruiser.” Some agreed with the last speaker and some were against him, so that a brisk argument was being carried on around me. In the midst of it the Prince took his departure, which was the signal for the greater part of the company to make for the door. In this way I was able at last to reach the corner where Jim had just finished his dressing, while Champion Harrison, with tears of joy still shining upon his cheeks, was helping him on with his overcoat. “In four rounds!” he kept repeating in a sort of an ecstasy. “Joe Berks in four rounds! And it took Jem Belcher fourteen!” “Well, Roddy,” cried Jim, holding out his hand, “I told you that I would come to London and make my name known.” “It was splendid, Jim!” “Dear old Roddy! I saw your white face staring at me from the corner. You are not changed, for all your grand clothes and your London friends.” “It is you who are changed, Jim,” said I; “I hardly knew you when you came into the room.” “Nor I,” cried the smith. “Where got you all these fine feathers, Jim? Sure I am that it was not your aunt who helped you to the first step towards the prize-ring.” “Miss Hinton has been my friend - the best friend I ever had.” “Humph! I thought as much,” grumbled the smith. “Well, it is no doing of mine, Jim, and you must bear witness to that when we go home again. I don’t know what - but, there, it is done, and it can’t be helped. After all, she’s - Now, the deuce take my clumsy tongue!” I could not tell whether it was the wine which he had taken at supper or the excitement of Boy Jim’s victory which was affecting Harrison, but his usually placid face wore a most disturbed expression, and his manner seemed to betray an alternation of exultation and embarrassment. Jim looked curiously at him, wondering evidently what it was that lay behind these abrupt sentences and sudden silences. The coach-house had in the mean time been cleared; Berks with many curses had staggered at last to his feet, and had gone off in company with two other bruisers, while Jem Belcher alone remained chatting very earnestly with my uncle. “Very good, Belcher,” I heard my uncle say. “It would be a real pleasure to me to do it, sir,” and the famous prize-fighter, as the two walked towards us. “I wished to ask you, Jim Harrison, whether you would undertake to be my champion in the fight against Crab Wilson of Gloucester?” said my uncle. “That is what I want, Sir Charles - to have a chance of fighting my way upwards.” “There are heavy stakes upon the event - very heavy stakes,” said my uncle. “You will receive two hundred pounds, if you win. Does that satisfy you?” “I shall fight for the honour, and because I wish to be thought worthy of being matched against Jem Belcher.” Belcher laughed good-humouredly. “You are going the right way about it, lad,” said he. “But you had a soft thing on to-night with a drunken man who was out of condition.” “I did not wish to fight him,” said Jim, flushing. “Oh, I know you have spirit enough to fight anything on two legs. I knew that the instant I clapped eyes on you; but I want you to remember that when you fight Crab Wilson, you will fight the most promising man from the west, and that the best man of the west is likely to be the best man in England. He’s as quick and as long in the reach as you are, and he’ll train himself to the last half-ounce of tallow. I tell you this now, d’ye see, because if I’m to have the charge of you - ” “Charge of me!” “Yes,” said my uncle. “Belcher has consented to train you for the coming battle if you are willing to enter.” “I am sure I am very much obliged to you,” cried Jim, heartily. “Unless my uncle should wish to train me, there is no one I would rather have.” “Nay, Jim; I’ll stay with you a few days, but Belcher knows a deal more about training than I do. Where will the quarters be?” “I thought it would be handy for you if we fixed it at the George, at Crawley. Then, if we have choice of place, we might choose Crawley Down, for, except Molesey Hurst, and, maybe, Smitham Bottom, there isn’t a spot in the country that would compare with it for a mill. Do you agree with that?” “With all my heart,” said Jim. “Then you’re my man from this hour on, d’ye see?” said Belcher. “Your food is mine, and your drink is mine, and your sleep is mine, and all you’ve to do is just what you are told. We haven’t an hour to lose, for Wilson has been in half-training this month back. You saw his empty glass to-night.” “Jim’s fit to fight for his life at the present moment,” said Harrison. “But we’ll both come down to Crawley to-morrow. So good night, Sir Charles.” “Good night, Roddy,” said Jim. “You’ll come down to Crawley and see me at my training quarters, will you not?” And I heartily promised that I would. “You must be more careful, nephew,” said my uncle, as we rattled home in his model vis-à-vis. “En première jeunesse one is a little inclined to be ruled by one’s heart rather than by one’s reason. Jim Harrison seems to be a most respectable young fellow, but after all he is a blacksmith’s apprentice, and a candidate for the prize-ring. There is a vast gap between his position and that of my own blood relation, and you must let him feel that you are his superior.” “He is the oldest and dearest friend that I have in the world, sir,” I answered. “We were boys together, and have never had a secret from each other. As to showing him that I am his superior, I don’t know how I can do that, for I know very well that he is mine.” “Hum!” said my uncle, drily, and it was the last word that he addressed to me that night.