Rodney Stone

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The ring-side

Out of the whole of that vast multitude I was one of the very few who had observed whence it was that this black hat, skimming so opportunely over the ropes, had come.  I have already remarked that when we looked around us there had been a single gig travelling very rapidly upon the southern road.  My uncle’s eyes had rested upon it, but his attention had been drawn away by the discussion between Sir Lothian Hume and the referee upon the question of time.  For my own part, I had been so struck by the furious manner in which these belated travellers were approaching, that I had continued to watch them with all sorts of vague hopes within me, which I did not dare to put into words for fear of adding to my uncle’s disappointments.  I had just made out that the gig contained a man and a woman, when suddenly I saw it swerve off the road, and come with a galloping horse and bounding wheels right across the moor, crashing through the gorse bushes, and sinking down to the hubs in the heather and bracken.  As the driver pulled up his foam-spattered horse, he threw the reins to his companion, sprang from his seat, butted furiously into the crowd, and then an instant afterwards up went the hat which told of his challenge and defiance. “There is no hurry now, I presume, Craven,” said my uncle, as coolly as if this sudden effect had been carefully devised by him. “Now that your man has his hat in the ring you can take as much time as you like, Sir Charles.” “Your friend has certainly cut it rather fine, nephew.” “It is not Jim, sir,” I whispered.  “It is some one else.” My uncle’s eyebrows betrayed his astonishment. “Some one else!” he ejaculated. “And a good man too!” roared Belcher, slapping his thigh with a crack like a pistol-shot.  “Why, blow my dickey if it ain’t old Jack Harrison himself!” Looking down at the crowd, we had seen the head and shoulders of a powerful and strenuous man moving slowly forward, and leaving behind him a long V-shaped ripple upon its surface like the wake of a swimming dog.  Now, as he pushed his way through the looser fringe the head was raised, and there was the grinning, hardy face of the smith looking up at us.  He had left his hat in the ring, and was enveloped in an overcoat with a blue bird’s-eye handkerchief tied round his neck.  As he emerged from the throng he let his great-coat fly loose, and showed that he was dressed in his full fighting kit - black drawers, chocolate stockings, and white shoes. “I’m right sorry to be so late, Sir Charles,” he cried.  “I’d have been sooner, but it took me a little time to make it all straight with the missus.  I couldn’t convince her all at once, an’ so I brought her with me, and we argued it out on the way.” Looking at the gig, I saw that it was indeed Mrs. Harrison who was seated in it.  Sir Charles beckoned him up to the wheel of the curricle. “What in the world brings you here, Harrison?” he whispered.  “I am as glad to see you as ever I was to see a man in my life, but I confess that I did not expect you.” “Well, sir, you heard I was coming,” said the smith. “Indeed, I did not.” “Didn’t you get a message, Sir Charles, from a man named Cumming, landlord of the Friar’s Oak Inn?  Mister Rodney there would know him.” “We saw him dead drunk at the George.” “There, now, if I wasn’t afraid of it!” cried Harrison, angrily.  “He’s always like that when he’s excited, and I never saw a man more off his head than he was when he heard I was going to take this job over.  He brought a bag of sovereigns up with him to back me with.” “That’s how the betting got turned,” said my uncle.  “He found others to follow his lead, it appears.” “I was so afraid that he might get upon the drink that I made him promise to go straight to you, sir, the very instant he should arrive.  He had a note to deliver.” “I understand that he reached the George at six, whilst I did not return from Reigate until after seven, by which time I have no doubt that he had drunk his message to me out of his head.  But where is your nephew Jim, and how did you come to know that you would be needed?” “It is not his fault, I promise you, that you should be left in the lurch.  As to me, I had my orders to take his place from the only man upon earth whose word I have never disobeyed.” “Yes, Sir Charles,” said Mrs. Harrison, who had left the gig and approached us.  “You can make the most of it this time, for never again shall you have my Jack - not if you were to go on your knees for him.” “She’s not a patron of sport, and that’s a fact,” said the smith. “Sport!” she cried, with shrill contempt and anger.  “Tell me when all is over.” She hurried away, and I saw her afterwards seated amongst the bracken, her back turned towards the multitude, and her hands over her ears, cowering and wincing in an agony of apprehension. Whilst this hurried scene had been taking place, the crowd had become more and more tumultuous, partly from their impatience at the delay, and partly from their exuberant spirits at the unexpected chance of seeing so celebrated a fighting man as Harrison.  His identity had already been noised abroad, and many an elderly connoisseur plucked his long net-purse out of his fob, in order to put a few guineas upon the man who would represent the school of the past against the present.  The younger men were still in favour of the west-countryman, and small odds were to be had either way in proportion to the number of the supporters of each in the different parts of the crowd. In the mean time Sir Lothian Hume had come bustling up to the Honourable Berkeley Craven, who was still standing near our curricle. “I beg to lodge a formal protest against these proceedings,” said he. “On what grounds, sir?” “Because the man produced is not the original nominee of Sir Charles Tregellis.” “I never named one, as you are well aware,” said my uncle. “The betting has all been upon the understanding that young Jim Harrison was my man’s opponent.  Now, at the last moment, he is withdrawn and another and more formidable man put into his place.” “Sir Charles Tregellis is quite within his rights,” said Craven, firmly.  “He undertook to produce a man who should be within the age limits stipulated, and I understand that Harrison fulfils all the conditions.  You are over five-and-thirty, Harrison?” “Forty-one next month, master.” “Very good.  I direct that the fight proceed.” But alas! there was one authority which was higher even than that of the referee, and we were destined to an experience which was the prelude, and sometimes the conclusion, also, of many an old-time fight.  Across the moor there had ridden a black-coated gentleman, with buff-topped hunting-boots and a couple of grooms behind him, the little knot of horsemen showing up clearly upon the curving swells and then dipping down into the alternate hollows.  Some of the more observant of the crowd had glanced suspiciously at this advancing figure, but the majority had not observed him at all until he reined up his horse upon a knoll which overlooked the amphitheatre, and in a stentorian voice announced that he represented the Custos rotulorum of His Majesty’s county of Sussex, that he proclaimed this assembly to be gathered together for an illegal purpose, and that he was commissioned to disperse it by force, if necessary. Never before had I understood that deep-seated fear and wholesome respect which many centuries of bludgeoning at the hands of the law had beaten into the fierce and turbulent natives of these islands.  Here was a man with two attendants upon one side, and on the other thirty thousand very angry and disappointed people, many of them fighters by profession, and some from the roughest and most dangerous classes in the country.  And yet it was the single man who appealed confidently to force, whilst the huge multitude swayed and murmured like a mutinous fierce-willed creature brought face to face with a power against which it knew that there was neither argument nor resistance.  My uncle, however, with Berkeley Craven, Sir John Lade, and a dozen other lords and gentlemen, hurried across to the interrupter of the sport. “I presume that you have a warrant, sir?” said Craven. “Yes, sir, I have a warrant.” “Then I have a legal right to inspect it.” The magistrate handed him a blue paper which the little knot of gentlemen clustered their heads over, for they were mostly magistrates themselves, and were keenly alive to any possible flaw in the wording.  At last Craven shrugged his shoulders, and handed it back. “This seems to be correct, sir,” said he. “It is entirely correct,” answered the magistrate, affably.  “To prevent waste of your valuable time, gentlemen, I may say, once for all, that it is my unalterable determination that no fight shall, under any circumstances, be brought off in the county over which I have control, and I am prepared to follow you all day in order to prevent it.” To my inexperience this appeared to bring the whole matter to a conclusion, but I had underrated the foresight of those who arrange these affairs, and also the advantages which made Crawley Down so favourite a rendezvous.  There was a hurried consultation between the principals, the backers, the referee, and the timekeeper. “It’s seven miles to Hampshire border and about two to Surrey,” said Jackson.  The famous Master of the Ring was clad in honour of the occasion in a most resplendent scarlet coat worked in gold at the buttonholes, a white stock, a looped hat with a broad black band, buff knee-breeches, white silk stockings, and paste buckles - a costume which did justice to his magnificent figure, and especially to those famous “balustrade” calves which had helped him to be the finest runner and jumper as well as the most formidable pugilist in England.  His hard, high-boned face, large piercing eyes, and immense physique made him a fitting leader for that rough and tumultuous body who had named him as their commander-in-chief. “If I might venture to offer you a word of advice,” said the affable official, “it would be to make for the Hampshire line, for Sir James Ford, on the Surrey border, has as great an objection to such assemblies as I have, whilst Mr. Merridew, of Long Hall, who is the Hampshire magistrate, has fewer scruples upon the point.” “Sir,” said my uncle, raising his hat in his most impressive manner, “I am infinitely obliged to you.  With the referee’s permission, there is nothing for it but to shift the stakes.” In an instant a scene of the wildest animation had set in.  Tom Owen and his assistant, Fogo, with the help of the ring-keepers, plucked up the stakes and ropes, and carried them off across country.  Crab Wilson was enveloped in great coats, and borne away in the barouche, whilst Champion Harrison took Mr. Craven’s place in our curricle.  Then, off the huge crowd started, horsemen, vehicles, and pedestrians, rolling slowly over the broad face of the moorland.  The carriages rocked and pitched like boats in a seaway, as they lumbered along, fifty abreast, scrambling and lurching over everything which came in their way.  Sometimes, with a snap and a thud, one axle would come to the ground, whilst a wheel reeled off amidst the tussocks of heather, and roars of delight greeted the owners as they looked ruefully at the ruin.  Then as the gorse clumps grew thinner, and the sward more level, those on foot began to run, the riders struck in their spurs, the drivers cracked their whips, and away they all streamed in the maddest, wildest cross-country steeplechase, the yellow barouche and the crimson curricle, which held the two champions, leading the van. “What do you think of your chances, Harrison?” I heard my uncle ask, as the two mares picked their way over the broken ground. “It’s my last fight, Sir Charles,” said the smith.  “You heard the missus say that if she let me off this time I was never to ask again.  I must try and make it a good one.” “But your training?” “I’m always in training, sir.  I work hard from morning to night, and I drink little else than water.  I don’t think that Captain Barclay can do much better with all his rules.” “He’s rather long in the reach for you.” “I’ve fought and beat them that were longer.  If it comes to a rally I should hold my own, and I should have the better of him at a throw.” “It’s a match of youth against experience.  Well, I would not hedge a guinea of my money.  But, unless he was acting under force, I cannot forgive young Jim for having deserted me.” “He was acting under force, Sir Charles.” “You have seen him, then?” “No, master, I have not seen him.” “You know where he is?” “Well, it is not for me to say one way or the other.  I can only tell you that he could not help himself.  But here’s the beak a-comin’ for us again.” The ominous figure galloped up once more alongside of our curricle, but this time his mission was a more amiable one. “My jurisdiction ends at that ditch, sir,” said he.  “I should fancy that you could hardly wish a better place for a mill than the sloping field beyond.  I am quite sure that no one will interfere with you there.” His anxiety that the fight should be brought off was in such contrast to the zeal with which he had chased us from his county, that my uncle could not help remarking upon it. “It is not for a magistrate to wink at the breaking of the law, sir,” he answered.  “But if my colleague of Hampshire has no scruples about its being brought off within his jurisdiction, I should very much like to see the fight,” with which he spurred his horse up an adjacent knoll, from which he thought that he might gain the best view of the proceedings. And now I had a view of all those points of etiquette and curious survivals of custom which are so recent, that we have not yet appreciated that they may some day be as interesting to the social historian as they then were to the sportsman.  A dignity was given to the contest by a rigid code of ceremony, just as the clash of mail-clad knights was prefaced and adorned by the calling of the heralds and the showing of blazoned shields.  To many in those ancient days the tourney may have seemed a bloody and brutal ordeal, but we who look at it with ample perspective see that it was a rude but gallant preparation for the conditions of life in an iron age.  And so also, when the ring has become as extinct as the lists, we may understand that a broader philosophy would show that all things, which spring up so naturally and spontaneously, have a function to fulfil, and that it is a less evil that two men should, of their own free will, fight until they can fight no more than that the standard of hardihood and endurance should run the slightest risk of being lowered in a nation which depends so largely upon the individual qualities of her citizens for her defence.  Do away with war, if the cursed thing can by any wit of man be avoided, but until you see your way to that, have a care in meddling with those primitive qualities to which at any moment you may have to appeal for your own protection. Tom Owen and his singular assistant, Fogo, who combined the functions of prize-fighter and of poet, though, fortunately for himself, he could use his fists better than his pen, soon had the ring arranged according to the rules then in vogue.  The white wooden posts, each with the P.C. of the pugilistic club printed upon it, were so fixed as to leave a square of 24 feet within the roped enclosure.  Outside this ring an outer one was pitched, eight feet separating the two.  The inner was for the combatants and for their seconds, while in the outer there were places for the referee, the timekeeper, the backers, and a few select and fortunate individuals, of whom, through being in my uncle’s company, I was one.  Some twenty well-known prize-fighters, including my friend Bill Warr, Black Richmond, Maddox, The Pride of Westminster, Tom Belcher, Paddington Jones, Tough Tom Blake, Symonds the ruffian, Tyne the tailor, and others, were stationed in the outer ring as beaters.  These fellows all wore the high white hats which were at that time much affected by the fancy, and they were armed with horse-whips, silver-mounted, and each bearing the P.C. monogram.  Did any one, be it East End rough or West End patrician, intrude within the outer ropes, this corp of guardians neither argued nor expostulated, but they fell upon the offender and laced him with their whips until he escaped back out of the forbidden ground.  Even with so formidable a guard and such fierce measures, the beaters-out, who had to check the forward heaves of a maddened, straining crowd, were often as exhausted at the end of a fight as the principals themselves.  In the mean time they formed up in a line of sentinels, presenting under their row of white hats every type of fighting face, from the fresh boyish countenances of Tom Belcher, Jones, and the other younger recruits, to the scarred and mutilated visages of the veteran bruisers. Whilst the business of the fixing of the stakes and the fastening of the ropes was going forward, I from my place of vantage could hear the talk of the crowd behind me, the front two rows of which were lying upon the grass, the next two kneeling, and the others standing in serried ranks all up the side of the gently sloping hill, so that each line could just see over the shoulders of that which was in front.  There were several, and those amongst the most experienced, who took the gloomiest view of Harrison’s chances, and it made my heart heavy to overhear them. “It’s the old story over again,” said one.  “They won’t bear in mind that youth will be served.  They only learn wisdom when it’s knocked into them.” “Ay, ay,” responded another.  “That’s how Jack Slack thrashed Boughton, and I myself saw Hooper, the tinman, beat to pieces by the fighting oilman.  They all come to it in time, and now it’s Harrison’s turn.” “Don’t you be so sure about that!” cried a third.  “I’ve seen Jack Harrison fight five times, and I never yet saw him have the worse of it.  He’s a slaughterer, and so I tell you.” “He was, you mean.” “Well, I don’t see no such difference as all that comes to, and I’m putting ten guineas on my opinion.” “Why,” said a loud, consequential man from immediately behind me, speaking with a broad western burr, “vrom what I’ve zeen of this young Gloucester lad, I doan’t think Harrison could have stood bevore him for ten rounds when he vas in his prime.  I vas coming up in the Bristol coach yesterday, and the guard he told me that he had vifteen thousand pound in hard gold in the boot that had been zent up to back our man.” “They’ll be in luck if they see their money again,” said another.  “Harrison’s no lady’s-maid fighter, and he’s blood to the bone.  He’d have a shy at it if his man was as big as Carlton House.” “Tut,” answered the west-countryman.  “It’s only in Bristol and Gloucester that you can get men to beat Bristol and Gloucester.” “It’s like your damned himpudence to say so,” said an angry voice from the throng behind him.  “There are six men in London that would hengage to walk round the best twelve that hever came from the west.” The proceedings might have opened by an impromptu bye-battle between the indignant cockney and the gentleman from Bristol, but a prolonged roar of applause broke in upon their altercation.  It was caused by the appearance in the ring of Crab Wilson, followed by Dutch Sam and Mendoza carrying the basin, sponge, brandy-bladder, and other badges of their office.  As he entered Wilson pulled the canary-yellow handkerchief from his waist, and going to the corner post, he tied it to the top of it, where it remained fluttering in the breeze.  He then took a bundle of smaller ribands of the same colour from his seconds, and walking round, he offered them to the noblemen and Corinthians at half-a-guinea apiece as souvenirs of the fight.  His brisk trade was only brought to an end by the appearance of Harrison, who climbed in a very leisurely manner over the ropes, as befitted his more mature years and less elastic joints.  The yell which greeted him was even more enthusiastic than that which had heralded Wilson, and there was a louder ring of admiration in it, for the crowd had already had their opportunity of seeing Wilson’s physique, whilst Harrison’s was a surprise to them. I had often looked upon the mighty arms and neck of the smith, but I had never before seen him stripped to the waist, or understood the marvellous symmetry of development which had made him in his youth the favourite model of the London sculptors.  There was none of that white sleek skin and shimmering play of sinew which made Wilson a beautiful picture, but in its stead there was a rugged grandeur of knotted and tangled muscle, as though the roots of some old tree were writhing from breast to shoulder, and from shoulder to elbow.  Even in repose the sun threw shadows from the curves of his skin, but when he exerted himself every muscle bunched itself up, distinct and hard, breaking his whole trunk into gnarled knots of sinew.  His skin, on face and body, was darker and harsher than that of his youthful antagonist, but he looked tougher and harder, an effect which was increased by the sombre colour of his stockings and breeches.  He entered the ring, sucking a lemon, with Jim Belcher and Caleb Baldwin, the coster, at his heels.  Strolling across to the post, he tied his blue bird’s-eye handkerchief over the west-countryman’s yellow, and then walked to his opponent with his hand out. “I hope I see you well, Wilson,” said he. “Pretty tidy, I thank you,” answered the other.  “We’ll speak to each other in a different vashion, I ’spects, afore we part.” “But no ill-feeling,” said the smith, and the two fighting men grinned at each other as they took their own corners. “May I ask, Mr. Referee, whether these two men have been weighed?” asked Sir Lothian Hume, standing up in the outer ring. “Their weight has just been taken under my supervision, sir,” answered Mr. Craven.  “Your man brought the scale down at thirteen-three, and Harrison at thirteen-eight.” “He’s a fifteen-stoner from the loins upwards,” cried Dutch Sam, from his corner. “We’ll get some of it off him before we finish.” “You’ll get more off him than ever you bargained for,” answered Jim Belcher, and the crowd laughed at the rough chaff.

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