On the road
And now the day of the great fight began to approach. Even the imminent outbreak of war and the renewed threats of Napoleon were secondary things in the eyes of the sportsmen - and the sportsmen in those days made a large half of the population. In the club of the patrician and the plebeian gin-shop, in the coffee-house of the merchant or the barrack of the soldier, in London or the provinces, the same question was interesting the whole nation. Every west-country coach brought up word of the fine condition of Crab Wilson, who had returned to his own native air for his training, and was known to be under the immediate care of Captain Barclay, the expert. On the other hand, although my uncle had not yet named his man, there was no doubt amongst the public that Jim was to be his nominee, and the report of his physique and of his performance found him many backers. On the whole, however, the betting was in favour of Wilson, for Bristol and the west country stood by him to a man, whilst London opinion was divided. Three to two were to be had on Wilson at any West End club two days before the battle. I had twice been down to Crawley to see Jim in his training quarters, where I found him undergoing the severe regimen which was usual. From early dawn until nightfall he was running, jumping, striking a bladder which swung upon a bar, or sparring with his formidable trainer. His eyes shone and his skin glowed with exuberent health, and he was so confident of success that my own misgivings vanished as I watched his gallant bearing and listened to his quiet and cheerful words. “But I wonder that you should come and see me now, Rodney,” said he, when we parted, trying to laugh as he spoke. “I have become a bruiser and your uncle’s paid man, whilst you are a Corinthian upon town. If you had not been the best and truest little gentleman in the world, you would have been my patron instead of my friend before now.” When I looked at this splendid fellow, with his high-bred, clean-cut face, and thought of the fine qualities and gentle, generous impulses which I knew to lie within him, it seemed so absurd that he should speak as though my friendship towards him were a condescension, that I could not help laughing aloud. “That is all very well, Rodney,” said he, looking hard into my eyes. “But what does your uncle think about it?” This was a poser, and I could only answer lamely enough that, much as I was indebted to my uncle, I had known Jim first, and that I was surely old enough to choose my own friends. Jim’s misgivings were so far correct that my uncle did very strongly object to any intimacy between us; but there were so many other points in which he disapproved of my conduct, that it made the less difference. I fear that he was already disappointed in me. I would not develop an eccentricity, although he was good enough to point out several by which I might “come out of the ruck,” as he expressed it, and so catch the attention of the strange world in which he lived. “You are an active young fellow, nephew,” said he. “Do you not think that you could engage to climb round the furniture of an ordinary room without setting foot upon the ground? Some little tour-de-force of the sort is in excellent taste. There was a captain in the Guards who attained considerable social success by doing it for a small wager. Lady Lieven, who is exceedingly exigeant, used to invite him to her evenings merely that he might exhibit it.” I had to assure him that the feat would be beyond me. “You are just a little difficile,” said he, shrugging his shoulders. “As my nephew, you might have taken your position by perpetuating my own delicacy of taste. If you had made bad taste your enemy, the world of fashion would willingly have looked upon you as an arbiter by virtue of your family traditions, and you might without a struggle have stepped into the position to which this young upstart Brummell aspires. But you have no instinct in that direction. You are incapable of minute attention to detail. Look at your shoes! Look at your cravat! Look at your watch-chain! Two links are enough to show. I have shown three, but it was an indiscretion. At this moment I can see no less than five of yours. I regret it, nephew, but I do not think that you are destined to attain that position which I have a right to expect from my blood relation.” “I am sorry to be a disappointment to you, sir,” said I. “It is your misfortune not to have come under my influence earlier,” said he. “I might then have moulded you so as to have satisfied even my own aspirations. I had a younger brother whose case was a similar one. I did what I could for him, but he would wear ribbons in his shoes, and he publicly mistook white Burgundy for Rhine wine. Eventually the poor fellow took to books, and lived and died in a country vicarage. He was a good man, but he was commonplace, and there is no place in society for commonplace people.” “Then I fear, sir, that there is none for me,” said I. “But my father has every hope that Lord Nelson will find me a position in the fleet. If I have been a failure in town, I am none the less conscious of your kindness in trying to advance my interests, and I hope that, should I receive my commission, I may be a credit to you yet.” “It is possible that you may attain the very spot which I had marked out for you, but by another road,” said my uncle. “There are many men in town, such as Lord St. Vincent, Lord Hood, and others, who move in the most respectable circles, although they have nothing but their services in the Navy to recommend them.” It was on the afternoon of the day before the fight that this conversation took place between my uncle and myself in the dainty sanctum of his Jermyn-Street house. He was clad, I remember, in his flowing brocade dressing-gown, as was his custom before he set off for his club, and his foot was extended upon a stool - for Abernethy had just been in to treat him for an incipient attack of the gout. It may have been the pain, or it may have been his disappointment at my career, but his manner was more testy than was usual with him, and I fear that there was something of a sneer in his smile as he spoke of my deficiencies. For my own part I was relieved at the explanation, for my father had left London in the full conviction that a vacancy would speedily be found for us both, and the one thing which had weighed upon my mind was that I might have found it hard to leave my uncle without interfering with the plans which he had formed. I was heart-weary of this empty life, for which I was so ill-fashioned, and weary also of that intolerant talk which would make a coterie of frivolous women and foolish fops the central point of the universe. Something of my uncle’s sneer may have flickered upon my lips as I heard him allude with supercilious surprise to the presence in those sacrosanct circles of the men who had stood between the country and destruction. “By the way, nephew,” said he, “gout or no gout, and whether Abernethy likes it or not, we must be down at Crawley to-night. The battle will take place upon Crawley Downs. Sir Lothian Hume and his man are at Reigate. I have reserved beds at the George for both of us. The crush will, it is said, exceed anything ever known. The smell of these country inns is always most offensive to me - mais que voulez-vous? Berkeley Craven was saying in the club last night that there is not a bed within twenty miles of Crawley which is not bespoke, and that they are charging three guineas for the night. I hope that your young friend, if I must describe him as such, will fulfil the promise which he has shown, for I have rather more upon the event than I care to lose. Sir Lothian has been plunging also - he made a single bye-bet of five thousand to three upon Wilson in Limmer’s yesterday. From what I hear of his affairs it will be a serious matter for him if we should pull it off. Well, Lorimer?” “A person to see you, Sir Charles,” said the new valet. “You know that I never see any one until my dressing is complete.” “He insists upon seeing you, sir. He pushed open the door.” “Pushed it open! What d’you mean, Lorimer? Why didn’t you put him out?” A smile passed over the servant’s face. At the same moment there came a deep voice from the passage. “You show me in this instant, young man, d’ye ’ear? Let me see your master, or it’ll be the worse for you.” I thought that I had heard the voice before, but when, over the shoulder of the valet, I caught a glimpse of a large, fleshy, bull-face, with a flattened Michael Angelo nose in the centre of it, I knew at once that it was my neighbour at the supper party. “It’s Warr, the prizefighter, sir,” said I. “Yes, sir,” said our visitor, pushing his huge form into the room. “It’s Bill Warr, landlord of the One Ton public-’ouse, Jermyn Street, and the gamest man upon the list. There’s only one thing that ever beat me, Sir Charles, and that was my flesh, which creeps over me that amazin’ fast that I’ve always got four stone that ’as no business there. Why, sir, I’ve got enough to spare to make a feather-weight champion out of. You’d ’ardly think, to look at me, that even after Mendoza fought me I was able to jump the four-foot ropes at the ring-side just as light as a little kiddy; but if I was to chuck my castor into the ring now I’d never get it till the wind blew it out again, for blow my dicky if I could climb after. My respec’s to you, young sir, and I ’ope I see you well.” My uncle’s face had expressed considerable disgust at this invasion of his privacy, but it was part of his position to be on good terms with the fighting-men, so he contented himself with asking curtly what business had brought him there. For answer the huge prizefighter looked meaningly at the valet. “It’s important, Sir Charles, and between man and man,” said he. “You may go, Lorimer. Now, Warr, what is the matter?” The bruiser very calmly seated himself astride of a chair with his arms resting upon the back of it. “I’ve got information, Sir Charles,” said he. “Well, what is it?” cried my uncle, impatiently. “Information of value.” “Out with it, then!” “Information that’s worth money,” said Warr, and pursed up his lips. “I see. You want to be paid for what you know?” The prizefighter smiled an affirmative. “Well, I don’t buy things on trust. You should know me better than to try on such a game with me.” “I know you for what you are, Sir Charles, and that is a noble, slap-up Corinthian. But if I was to use this against you, d’ye see, it would be worth ’undreds in my pocket. But my ’eart won’t let me do it, for Bill Warr’s always been on the side o’ good sport and fair play. If I use it for you, then I expect that you won’t see me the loser.” “You can do what you like,” said my uncle. “If your news is of service to me, I shall know how to treat you.” “You can’t say fairer than that. We’ll let it stand there, gov’nor, and you’ll do the ’andsome thing, as you ’ave always ’ad the name for doin’. Well, then, your man, Jim ’Arisen, fights Crab Wilson, of Gloucester, at Crawley Down to-morrow mornin’ for a stake.” “What of that?” “Did you ’appen to know what the bettin’ was yesterday?” “It was three to two on Wilson.” “Right you are, gov’nor. Three to two was offered in my own bar-parlour. D’you know what the bettin’ is to-day?” “I have not been out yet.” “Then I’ll tell you. It’s seven to one against your man.” “What?” “Seven to one, gov’nor, no less.” “You’re talking nonsense, Warr! How could the betting change from three to two to seven to one?” “Ive been to Tom Owen’s, and I’ve been to the ’Ole in the Wall, and I’ve been to the Waggon and ’Orses, and you can get seven to one in any of them. There’s tons of money being laid against your man. It’s a ’orse to a ’en in every sportin’ ’ouse and boozin’ ken from ’ere to Stepney.” For a moment the expression upon my uncle’s face made me realize that this match was really a serious matter to him. Then he shrugged his shoulders with an incredulous smile. “All the worse for the fools who give the odds,” said he. “My man is all right. You saw him yesterday, nephew?” “He was all right yesterday, sir.” “If anything had gone wrong I should have heard.” “But perhaps,” said Warr, “it ’as not gone wrong with ’im yet.” “What d’you mean?” “I’ll tell you what I mean, sir. You remember Berks? You know that ’e ain’t to be overmuch depended on at any time, and that ’e ’ad a grudge against your man ’cause ’e laid ’im out in the coach-’ouse. Well, last night about ten o’clock in ’e comes into my bar, and the three bloodiest rogues in London at ’is ’eels. There was Red Ike, ’im that was warned off the ring ’cause ’e fought a cross with Bittoon; and there was Fightin’ Yussef, who would sell ’is mother for a seven-shillin’-bit; the third was Chris McCarthy, who is a fogle-snatcher by trade, with a pitch outside the ’Aymarket Theatre. You don’t often see four such beauties together, and all with as much as they could carry, save only Chris, who is too leary a cove to drink when there’s somethin’ goin’ forward. For my part, I showed ’em into the parlour, not ’cos they was worthy of it, but ’cos I knew right well they would start bashin’ some of my customers, and maybe get my license into trouble if I left ’em in the bar. I served ’em with drink, and stayed with ’em just to see that they didn’t lay their ’ands on the stuffed parroquet and the pictures. “Well, gov’nor, to cut it short, they began to talk about the fight, and they all laughed at the idea that young Jim ’Arrison could win it - all except Chris, and e’ kept a-nudging and a-twitchin’ at the others until Joe Berks nearly gave him a wipe across the face for ’is trouble. I saw somethin’ was in the wind, and it wasn’t very ’ard to guess what it was - especially when Red Ike was ready to put up a fiver that Jim ’Arrison would never fight at all. So I up to get another bottle of liptrap, and I slipped round to the shutter that we pass the liquor through from the private bar into the parlour. I drew it an inch open, and I might ’ave been at the table with them, I could ’ear every word that clearly. “There was Chris McCarthy growlin’ at them for not keepin’ their tongues still, and there was Joe Berks swearin’ that ’e would knock ’is face in if ’e dared give ’im any of ’is lip. So Chris ’e sort of argued with them, for ’e was frightened of Berks, and ’e put it to them whether they would be fit for the job in the mornin’, and whether the gov’nor would pay the money if ’e found they ’ad been drinkin’ and were not to be trusted. This struck them sober, all three, an’ Fighting Yussef asked what time they were to start. Chris said that as long as they were at Crawley before the George shut up they could work it. ‘It’s poor pay for a chance of a rope,’ said Red Ike. ‘Rope be damned!’ cried Chris, takin’ a little loaded stick out of his side pocket. ‘If three of you ’old him down and I break his arm-bone with this, we’ve earned our money, and we don’t risk more’n six months’ jug.’ ‘’E’ll fight,’ said Berks. ‘Well, it’s the only fight ’e’ll get,’ answered Chris, and that was all I ’eard of it. This mornin’ out I went, and I found as I told you afore that the money is goin’ on to Wilson by the ton, and that no odds are too long for the layers. So it stands, gov’nor, and you know what the meanin’ of it may be better than Bill Warr can tell you.” “Very good, Warr,” said my uncle, rising. “I am very much obliged to you for telling me this, and I will see that you are not a loser by it. I put it down as the gossip of drunken ruffians, but none the less you have served me vastly by calling my attention to it. I suppose I shall see you at the Downs to-morrow?” “Mr. Jackson ’as asked me to be one o’ the beaters-out, sir.” “Very good. I hope that we shall have a fair and good fight. Good day to you, and thank you.” My uncle had preserved his jaunty demeanour as long as Warr was in the room, but the door had hardly closed upon him before he turned to me with a face which was more agitated than I had ever seen it. “We must be off for Crawley at once, nephew,” said he, ringing the bell. “There’s not a moment to be lost. Lorimer, order the bays to be harnessed in the curricle. Put the toilet things in, and tell William to have it round at the door as soon as possible.” “I’ll see to it, sir,” said I, and away I ran to the mews in Little Ryder Street, where my uncle stabled his horses. The groom was away, and I had to send a lad in search of him, while with the help of the livery-man I dragged the curricle from the coach-house and brought the two mares out of their stalls. It was half an hour, or possibly three-quarters, before everything had been found, and Lorimer was already waiting in Jermyn Street with the inevitable baskets, whilst my uncle stood in the open door of his house, clad in his long fawn-coloured driving-coat, with no sign upon his calm pale face of the tumult of impatience which must, I was sure, be raging within. “We shall leave you, Lorimer,” said he. “We might find it hard to get a bed for you. Keep at her head, William! Jump in, nephew. Halloa, Warr, what is the matter now?” The prizefighter was hastening towards us as fast as his bulk would allow. “Just one word before you go, Sir Charles,” he panted. “I’ve just ’eard in my taproom that the four men I spoke of left for Crawley at one o’clock.” “Very good, Warr,” said my uncle, with his foot upon the step. “And the odds ’ave risen to ten to one.” “Let go her head, William!” “Just one more word, gov’nor. You’ll excuse the liberty, but if I was you I’d take my pistols with me.” “Thank you; I have them.” The long thong cracked between the ears of the leader, the groom sprang for the pavement, and Jermyn Street had changed for St. James’s, and that again for Whitehall with a swiftness which showed that the gallant mares were as impatient as their master. It was half-past four by the Parliament clock as we flew on to Westminster Bridge. There was the flash of water beneath us, and then we were between those two long dun-coloured lines of houses which had been the avenue which had led us to London. My uncle sat with tightened lips and a brooding brow. We had reached Streatham before he broke the silence. “I have a good deal at stake, nephew,” said he. “So have I, sir,” I answered. “You!” he cried, in surprise. “My friend, sir.” “Ah, yes, I had forgot. You have some eccentricities, after all, nephew. You are a faithful friend, which is a rare enough thing in our circles. I never had but one friend of my own position, and he - but you’ve heard me tell the story. I fear it will be dark before we reach Crawley.” “I fear that it will.” “In that case we may be too late.” “Pray God not, sir!” “We sit behind the best cattle in England, but I fear lest we find the roads blocked before we get to Crawley. Did you observe, nephew, that these four villains spoke in Warr’s hearing of the master who was behind them, and who was paying them for their infamy? Did you not understand that they were hired to cripple my man? Who, then, could have hired them? Who had an interest unless it was - I know Sir Lothian Hume to be a desperate man. I know that he has had heavy card losses at Watier’s and White’s. I know also that he has much at stake upon this event, and that he has plunged upon it with a rashness which made his friends think that he had some private reason for being satisfied as to the result. By Heaven, it all hangs together! If it should be so - !” He relapsed into silence, but I saw the same look of cold fierceness settle upon his features which I had marked there when he and Sir John Lade had raced wheel to wheel down the Godstone road. The sun sank slowly towards the low Surrey hills, and the shadows crept steadily eastwards, but the whirr of the wheels and the roar of the hoofs never slackened. A fresh wind blew upon our faces, while the young leaves drooped motionless from the wayside branches. The golden edge of the sun was just sinking behind the oaks of Reigate Hill when the dripping mares drew up before the Crown at Redhill. The landlord, an old sportsman and ringsider, ran out to greet so well-known a Corinthian as Sir Charles Tregellis. “You know Berks, the bruiser?” asked my uncle. “Yes, Sir Charles.” “Has he passed?” “Yes, Sir Charles. It may have been about four o’clock, though with this crowd of folk and carriages it’s hard to swear to it. There was him, and Red Ike, and Fighting Yussef the Jew, and another, with a good bit of blood betwixt the shafts. They’d been driving her hard, too, for she was all in a lather.” “That’s ugly, nephew,” said my uncle, when we were flying onwards towards Reigate. “If they drove so hard, it looks as though they wished to get early to work.” “Jim and Belcher would surely be a match for the four of them,” I suggested. “If Belcher were with him I should have no fear. But you cannot tell what diablerie they may be up to. Let us only find him safe and sound, and I’ll never lose sight of him until I see him in the ring. We’ll sit up on guard with our pistols, nephew, and I only trust that these villains may be indiscreet enough to attempt it. But they must have been very sure of success before they put the odds up to such a figure, and it is that which alarms me.” “But surely they have nothing to win by such villainy, sir? If they were to hurt Jim Harrison the battle could not be fought, and the bets would not be decided.” “So it would be in an ordinary prize-battle, nephew; and it is fortunate that it should be so, or the rascals who infest the ring would soon make all sport impossible. But here it is different. On the terms of the wager I lose unless I can produce a man, within the prescribed ages, who can beat Crab Wilson. You must remember that I have never named my man. C’est dommage, but so it is! We know who it is and so do our opponents, but the referees and stakeholder would take no notice of that. If we complain that Jim Harrison has been crippled, they would answer that they have no official knowledge that Jim Harrison was our nominee. It’s play or pay, and the villains are taking advantage of it.” My uncle’s fears as to our being blocked upon the road were only too well founded, for after we passed Reigate there was such a procession of every sort of vehicle, that I believe for the whole eight miles there was not a horse whose nose was further than a few feet from the back of the curricle or barouche in front. Every road leading from London, as well as those from Guildford in the west and Tunbridge in the east, had contributed their stream of four-in-hands, gigs, and mounted sportsmen, until the whole broad Brighton highway was choked from ditch to ditch with a laughing, singing, shouting throng, all flowing in the same direction. No man who looked upon that motley crowd could deny that, for good or evil, the love of the ring was confined to no class, but was a national peculiarity, deeply seated in the English nature, and a common heritage of the young aristocrat in his drag and of the rough costers sitting six deep in their pony cart. There I saw statesmen and soldiers, noblemen and lawyers, farmers and squires, with roughs of the East End and yokels of the shires, all toiling along with the prospect of a night of discomfort before them, on the chance of seeing a fight which might, for all that they knew, be decided in a single round. A more cheery and hearty set of people could not be imagined, and the chaff flew about as thick as the dust clouds, while at every wayside inn the landlord and the drawers would be out with trays of foam-headed tankards to moisten those importunate throats. The ale-drinking, the rude good-fellowship, the heartiness, the laughter at discomforts, the craving to see the fight - all these may be set down as vulgar and trivial by those to whom they are distasteful; but to me, listening to the far-off and uncertain echoes of our distant past, they seem to have been the very bones upon which much that is most solid and virile in this ancient race was moulded. But, alas for our chance of hastening onwards! Even my uncle’s skill could not pick a passage through that moving mass. We could but fall into our places and be content to snail along from Reigate to Horley and on to Povey Cross and over Lowfield Heath, while day shaded away into twilight, and that deepened into night. At Kimberham Bridge the carriage-lamps were all lit, and it was wonderful, where the road curved downwards before us, to see this writhing serpent with the golden scales crawling before us in the darkness. And then, at last, we saw the formless mass of the huge Crawley elm looming before us in the gloom, and there was the broad village street with the glimmer of the cottage windows, and the high front of the old George Inn, glowing from every door and pane and crevice, in honour of the noble company who were to sleep within that night.