Rodney Stone

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The smith's last battle

“Clear the outer ring!” cried Jackson, standing up beside the ropes with a big silver watch in his hand. “Ss-whack! ss-whack! ss-whack!” went the horse-whips - for a number of the spectators, either driven onwards by the pressure behind or willing to risk some physical pain on the chance of getting a better view, had crept under the ropes and formed a ragged fringe within the outer ring.  Now, amidst roars of laughter from the crowd and a shower of blows from the beaters-out, they dived madly back, with the ungainly haste of frightened sheep blundering through a gap in their hurdles.  Their case was a hard one, for the folk in front refused to yield an inch of their places - but the arguments from the rear prevailed over everything else, and presently every frantic fugitive had been absorbed, whilst the beaters-out took their stands along the edge at regular intervals, with their whips held down by their thighs. “Gentlemen,” cried Jackson, again, “I am requested to inform you that Sir Charles Tregellis’s nominee is Jack Harrison, fighting at thirteen-eight, and Sir Lothian Hume’s is Crab Wilson, at thirteen-three.  No person can be allowed at the inner ropes save the referee and the timekeeper.  I have only to beg that, if the occasion should require it, you will all give me your assistance to keep the ground clear, to prevent confusion, and to have a fair fight.  All ready?” “All ready!” from both corners. “Time!” There was a breathless hush as Harrison, Wilson, Belcher, and Dutch Sam walked very briskly into the centre of the ring.  The two men shook hands, whilst their seconds did the same, the four hands crossing each other.  Then the seconds dropped back, and the two champions stood toe to toe, with their hands up. It was a magnificent sight to any one who had not lost his sense of appreciation of the noblest of all the works of Nature.  Both men fulfilled that requisite of the powerful athlete that they should look larger without their clothes than with them.  In ring slang, they buffed well.  And each showed up the other’s points on account of the extreme contrast between them: the long, loose-limbed, deer-footed youngster, and the square-set, rugged veteran with his trunk like the stump of an oak.  The betting began to rise upon the younger man from the instant that they were put face to face, for his advantages were obvious, whilst those qualities which had brought Harrison to the top in his youth were only a memory in the minds of the older men.  All could see the three inches extra of height and two of reach which Wilson possessed, and a glance at the quick, cat-like motions of his feet, and the perfect poise of his body upon his legs, showed how swiftly he could spring either in or out from his slower adversary.  But it took a subtler insight to read the grim smile which flickered over the smith’s mouth, or the smouldering fire which shone in his grey eyes, and it was only the old-timers who knew that, with his mighty heart and his iron frame, he was a perilous man to lay odds against. Wilson stood in the position from which he had derived his nickname, his left hand and left foot well to the front, his body sloped very far back from his loins, and his guard thrown across his chest, but held well forward in a way which made him exceedingly hard to get at.  The smith, on the other hand, assumed the obsolete attitude which Humphries and Mendoza introduced, but which had not for ten years been seen in a first-class battle.  Both his knees were slightly bent, he stood square to his opponent, and his two big brown fists were held over his mark so that he could lead equally with either.  Wilson’s hands, which moved incessantly in and out, had been stained with some astringent juice with the purpose of preventing them from puffing, and so great was the contrast between them and his white forearms, that I imagined that he was wearing dark, close-fitting gloves until my uncle explained the matter in a whisper.  So they stood in a quiver of eagerness and expectation, whilst that huge multitude hung so silently and breathlessly upon every motion that they might have believed themselves to be alone, man to man, in the centre of some primeval solitude. It was evident from the beginning that Crab Wilson meant to throw no chance away, and that he would trust to his lightness of foot and quickness of hand until he should see something of the tactics of this rough-looking antagonist.  He paced swiftly round several times, with little, elastic, menacing steps, whilst the smith pivoted slowly to correspond.  Then, as Wilson took a backward step to induce Harrison to break his ground and follow him, the older man grinned and shook his head. “You must come to me, lad,” said he.  “I’m too old to scamper round the ring after you.  But we have the day before us, and I’ll wait.” He may not have expected his invitation to be so promptly answered; but in an instant, with a panther spring, the west-countryman was on him.  Smack! smack! smack!  Thud! thud!  The first three were on Harrison’s face, the last two were heavy counters upon Wilson’s body.  Back danced the youngster, disengaging himself in beautiful style, but with two angry red blotches over the lower line of his ribs.  “Blood for Wilson!” yelled the crowd, and as the smith faced round to follow the movements of his nimble adversary, I saw with a thrill that his chin was crimson and dripping.  In came Wilson again with a feint at the mark and a flush hit on Harrison’s cheek; then, breaking the force of the smith’s ponderous right counter, he brought the round to a conclusion by slipping down upon the grass. “First knock-down for Harrison!” roared a thousand voices, for ten times as many pounds would change hands upon the point. “I appeal to the referee!” cried Sir Lothian Hume.  “It was a slip, and not a knock-down.” “I give it a slip,” said Berkeley Craven, and the men walked to their corners, amidst a general shout of applause for a spirited and well-contested opening round.  Harrison fumbled in his mouth with his finger and thumb, and then with a sharp half-turn he wrenched out a tooth, which he threw into the basin.  “Quite like old times,” said he to Belcher. “Have a care, Jack!” whispered the anxious second.  “You got rather more than you gave.” “Maybe I can carry more, too,” said he serenely, whilst Caleb Baldwin mopped the big sponge over his face, and the shining bottom of the tin basin ceased suddenly to glimmer through the water. I could gather from the comments of the experienced Corinthians around me, and from the remarks of the crowd behind, that Harrison’s chance was thought to have been lessened by this round. “I’ve seen his old faults and I haven’t seen his old merits,” said Sir John Lade, our opponent of the Brighton Road.  “He’s as slow on his feet and with his guard as ever.  Wilson hit him as he liked.” “Wilson may hit him three times to his once, but his one is worth Wilson’s three,” remarked my uncle.  “He’s a natural fighter and the other an excellent sparrer, but I don’t hedge a guinea.” A sudden hush announced that the men were on their feet again, and so skilfully had the seconds done their work, that neither looked a jot the worse for what had passed.  Wilson led viciously with his left, but misjudged his distance, receiving a smashing counter on the mark in reply which sent him reeling and gasping to the ropes.  “Hurrah for the old one!” yelled the mob, and my uncle laughed and nudged Sir John Lade.  The west-countryman smiled, and shook himself like a dog from the water as with a stealthy step he came back to the centre of the ring, where his man was still standing.  Bang came Harrison’s right upon the mark once more, but Crab broke the blow with his elbow, and jumped laughing away.  Both men were a little winded, and their quick, high breathing, with the light patter of their feet as they danced round each other, blended into one continuous, long-drawn sound.  Two simultaneous exchanges with the left made a clap like a pistol-shot, and then as Harrison rushed in for a fall, Wilson slipped him, and over went my old friend upon his face, partly from the impetus of his own futile attack, and partly from a swinging half-arm blow which the west-countryman brought home upon his ear as he passed. “Knock-down for Wilson,” cried the referee, and the answering roar was like the broadside of a seventy-four.  Up went hundreds of curly brimmed Corinthian hats into the air, and the slope before us was a bank of flushed and yelling faces.  My heart was cramped with my fears, and I winced at every blow, yet I was conscious also of an absolute fascination, with a wild thrill of fierce joy and a certain exultation in our common human nature which could rise above pain and fear in its straining after the very humblest form of fame. Belcher and Baldwin had pounced upon their man, and had him up and in his corner in an instant, but, in spite of the coolness with which the hardy smith took his punishment, there was immense exultation amongst the west-countrymen. “We’ve got him!  He’s beat!  He’s beat!” shouted the two Jew seconds.  “It’s a hundred to a tizzy on Gloucester!” “Beat, is he?” answered Belcher.  “You’ll need to rent this field before you can beat him, for he’ll stand a month of that kind of fly-flappin’.”  He was swinging a towel in front of Harrison as he spoke, whilst Baldwin mopped him with the sponge. “How is it with you, Harrison?” asked my uncle. “Hearty as a buck, sir.  It’s as right as the day.” The cheery answer came with so merry a ring that the clouds cleared from my uncle’s face. “You should recommend your man to lead more, Tregellis,” said Sir John Lade.  “He’ll never win it unless he leads.” “He knows more about the game than you or I do, Lade.  I’ll let him take his own way.” “The betting is three to one against him now,” said a gentleman, whose grizzled moustache showed that he was an officer of the late war. “Very true, General Fitzpatrick.  But you’ll observe that it is the raw young bloods who are giving the odds, and the Sheenies who are taking them.  I still stick to my opinion.” The two men came briskly up to the scratch at the call of time, the smith a little lumpy on one side of his head, but with the same good-humoured and yet menacing smile upon his lips.  As to Wilson, he was exactly as he had begun in appearance, but twice I saw him close his lips sharply as if he were in a sudden spasm of pain, and the blotches over his ribs were darkening from scarlet to a sullen purple.  He held his guard somewhat lower to screen this vulnerable point, and he danced round his opponent with a lightness which showed that his wind had not been impaired by the body-blows, whilst the smith still adopted the impassive tactics with which he had commenced. Many rumours had come up to us from the west as to Crab Wilson’s fine science and the quickness of his hitting, but the truth surpassed what had been expected of him.  In this round and the two which followed he showed a swiftness and accuracy which old ringsiders declared that Mendoza in his prime had never surpassed.  He was in and out like lightning, and his blows were heard and felt rather than seen.  But Harrison still took them all with the same dogged smile, occasionally getting in a hard body-blow in return, for his adversary’s height and his position combined to keep his face out of danger.  At the end of the fifth round the odds were four to one, and the west-countrymen were riotous in their exultation. “What think you now?” cried the west-countryman behind me, and in his excitement he could get no further save to repeat over and over again, “What think you now?”  When in the sixth round the smith was peppered twice without getting in a counter, and had the worst of the fall as well, the fellow became inarticulate altogether, and could only huzza wildly in his delight.  Sir Lothian Hume was smiling and nodding his head, whilst my uncle was coldly impassive, though I was sure that his heart was as heavy as mine. “This won’t do, Tregellis,” said General Fitzpatrick.  “My money is on the old one, but the other is the finer boxer.” “My man is un peu passé, but he will come through all right,” answered my uncle. I saw that both Belcher and Baldwin were looking grave, and I knew that we must have a change of some sort, or the old tale of youth and age would be told once more. The seventh round, however, showed the reserve strength of the hardy old fighter, and lengthened the faces of those layers of odds who had imagined that the fight was practically over, and that a few finishing rounds would have given the smith his coup-de-grâce.  It was clear when the two men faced each other that Wilson had made himself up for mischief, and meant to force the fighting and maintain the lead which he had gained, but that grey gleam was not quenched yet in the veteran’s eyes, and still the same smile played over his grim face.  He had become more jaunty, too, in the swing of his shoulders and the poise of his head, and it brought my confidence back to see the brisk way in which he squared up to his man. Wilson led with his left, but was short, and he only just avoided a dangerous right-hander which whistled in at his ribs.  “Bravo, old ’un, one of those will be a dose of laudanum if you get it home,” cried Belcher.  There was a pause of shuffling feet and hard breathing, broken by the thud of a tremendous body blow from Wilson, which the smith stopped with the utmost coolness.  Then again a few seconds of silent tension, when Wilson led viciously at the head, but Harrison took it on his forearm, smiling and nodding at his opponent.  “Get the pepper-box open!” yelled Mendoza, and Wilson sprang in to carry out his instructions, but was hit out again by a heavy drive on the chest.  “Now’s the time!  Follow it up!” cried Belcher, and in rushed the smith, pelting in his half-arm blows, and taking the returns without a wince, until Crab Wilson went down exhausted in the corner.  Both men had their marks to show, but Harrison had all the best of the rally, so it was our turn to throw our hats into the air and to shout ourselves hoarse, whilst the seconds clapped their man upon his broad back as they hurried him to his corner. “What think you now?” shouted all the neighbours of the west-countryman, repeating his own refrain. “Why, Dutch Sam never put in a better rally,” cried Sir John Lade.  “What’s the betting now, Sir Lothian?” “I have laid all that I intend; but I don’t think my man can lose it.”  For all that, the smile had faded from his face, and I observed that he glanced continually over his shoulder into the crowd behind him. A sullen purple cloud had been drifting slowly up from the south-west - though I dare say that out of thirty thousand folk there were very few who had spared the time or attention to mark it.  Now it suddenly made its presence apparent by a few heavy drops of rain, thickening rapidly into a sharp shower, which filled the air with its hiss, and rattled noisily upon the high, hard hats of the Corinthians.  Coat-collars were turned up and handkerchiefs tied round. necks, whilst the skins of the two men glistened with the moisture as they stood up to each other once more.  I noticed that Belcher whispered very earnestly into Harrison’s ear as he rose from his knee, and that the smith nodded his head curtly, with the air of a man who understands and approves of his orders. And what those orders were was instantly apparent.  Harrison was to be turned from the defender into the attacker.  The result of the rally in the last round had convinced his seconds that when it came to give-and-take hitting, their hardy and powerful man was likely to have the better of it.  And then on the top of this came the rain.  With the slippery grass the superior activity of Wilson would be neutralized, and he would find it harder to avoid the rushes of his opponent.  It was in taking advantage of such circumstances that the art of ringcraft lay, and many a shrewd and vigilant second had won a losing battle for his man.  “Go in, then!  Go in!” whooped the two prize-fighters, while every backer in the crowd took up the roar. And Harrison went in, in such fashion that no man who saw him do it will ever forget it.  Crab Wilson, as game as a pebble, met him with a flush hit every time, but no human strength or human science seemed capable of stopping the terrible onslaught of this iron man.  Round after round he scrambled his way in, slap-bang, right and left, every hit tremendously sent home.  Sometimes he covered his own face with his left, and sometimes he disdained to use any guard at all, but his springing hits were irresistible.  The rain lashed down upon them, pouring from their faces and running in crimson trickles over their bodies, but neither gave any heed to it save to manoeuvre always with the view of bringing it in to each other’s eyes.  But round after round the west-countryman fell, and round after round the betting rose, until the odds were higher in our favour than ever they had been against us.  With a sinking heart, filled with pity and admiration for these two gallant men, I longed that every bout might be the last, and yet the “Time!” was hardly out of Jackson’s mouth before they had both sprung from their second’s knees, with laughter upon their mutilated faces and chaffing words upon their bleeding lips.  It may have been a humble object-lesson, but I give you my word that many a time in my life I have braced myself to a hard task by the remembrance of that morning upon Crawley Downs, asking myself if my manhood were so weak that I would not do for my country, or for those whom I loved, as much as these two would endure for a paltry stake and for their own credit amongst their fellows.  Such a spectacle may brutalize those who are brutal, but I say that there is a spiritual side to it also, and that the sight of the utmost human limit of endurance and courage is one which bears a lesson of its own. But if the ring can breed bright virtues, it is but a partisan who can deny that it can be the mother of black vices also, and we were destined that morning to have a sight of each.  It so chanced that, as the battle went against his man, my eyes stole round very often to note the expression upon Sir Lothian Hume’s face, for I knew how fearlessly he had laid the odds, and I understood that his fortunes as well as his champion were going down before the smashing blows of the old bruiser.  The confident smile with which he had watched the opening rounds had long vanished from his lips, and his cheeks had turned of a sallow pallor, whilst his small, fierce grey eyes looked furtively from under his craggy brows, and more than once he burst into savage imprecations when Wilson was beaten to the ground.  But especially I noticed that his chin was always coming round to his shoulder, and that at the end of every round he sent keen little glances flying backwards into the crowd.  For some time, amidst the immense hillside of faces which banked themselves up on the slope behind us, I was unable to pick out the exact point at which his gaze was directed.  But at last I succeeded in following it.  A very tall man, who showed a pair of broad, bottle-green shoulders high above his neighbours, was looking very hard in our direction, and I assured myself that a quick exchange of almost imperceptible signals was going on between him and the Corinthian baronet.  I became conscious, also, as I watched this stranger, that the cluster of men around him were the roughest elements of the whole assembly: fierce, vicious-looking fellows, with cruel, debauched faces, who howled like a pack of wolves at every blow, and yelled execrations at Harrison whenever he walked across to his corner.  So turbulent were they that I saw the ringkeepers whisper together and glance up in their direction, as if preparing for trouble in store, but none of them had realized how near it was to breaking out, or how dangerous it might prove. Thirty rounds had been fought in an hour and twenty-five minutes, and the rain was pelting down harder than ever.  A thick steam rose from the two fighters, and the ring was a pool of mud.  Repeated falls had turned the men brown, with a horrible mottling of crimson blotches.  Round after round had ended by Crab Wilson going down, and it was evident, even to my inexperienced eyes, that he was weakening rapidly.  He leaned heavily upon the two Jews when they led him to his corner, and he reeled when their support was withdrawn.  Yet his science had, through long practice, become an automatic thing with him, so that he stopped and hit with less power, but with as great accuracy as ever.  Even now a casual observer might have thought that he had the best of the battle, for the smith was far the more terribly marked, but there was a wild stare in the west-countryman’s eyes, and a strange catch in his breathing, which told us that it is not the most dangerous blow which shows upon the surface.  A heavy cross-buttock at the end of the thirty-first round shook the breath from his body, and he came up for the thirty-second with the same jaunty gallantry as ever, but with the dazed expression of a man whose wind has been utterly smashed. “He’s got the roly-polies,” cried Belcher.  “You have it your own way now!” “I’ll vight for a week yet,” gasped Wilson. “Damme, I like his style,” cried Sir John Lade.  “No shifting, nothing shy, no hugging nor hauling.  It’s a shame to let him fight.  Take the brave fellow away!” “Take him away!  Take him away!” echoed a hundred voices. “I won’t be taken away!  Who dares say so?” cried Wilson, who was back, after another fall, upon his second’s knee. “His heart won’t suffer him to cry enough,” said General Fitzpatrick.  “As his patron, Sir Lothian, you should direct the sponge to be thrown up.” “You think he can’t win it?” “He is hopelessly beat, sir.” “You don’t know him.  He’s a glutton of the first water.” “A gamer man never pulled his shirt off; but the other is too strong for him.” “Well, sir, I believe that he can fight another ten rounds.”  He half turned as he spoke, and I saw him throw up his left arm with a singular gesture into the air. “Cut the ropes!  Fair play!  Wait till the rain stops!” roared a stentorian voice behind me, and I saw that it came from the big man with the bottle-green coat.  His cry was a signal, for, like a thunderclap, there came a hundred hoarse voices shouting together: “Fair play for Gloucester!  Break the ring!  Break the ring!” Jackson had called “Time,” and the two mud-plastered men were already upon their feet, but the interest had suddenly changed from the fight to the audience.  A succession of heaves from the back of the crowd had sent a series of long ripples running through it, all the heads swaying rhythmically in the one direction like a wheatfield in a squall.  With every impulsion the oscillation increased, those in front trying vainly to steady themselves against the rushes from behind, until suddenly there came a sharp snap, two white stakes with earth clinging to their points flew into the outer ring, and a spray of people, dashed from the solid wave behind, were thrown against the line of the beaters-out.  Down came the long horse-whips, swayed by the most vigorous arms in England; but the wincing and shouting victims had no sooner scrambled back a few yards from the merciless cuts, before a fresh charge from the rear hurled them once more into the arms of the prize-fighters.  Many threw themselves down upon the turf and allowed successive waves to pass over their bodies, whilst others, driven wild by the blows, returned them with their hunting-crops and walking-canes.  And then, as half the crowd strained to the left and half to the right to avoid the pressure from behind, the vast mass was suddenly reft in twain, and through the gap surged the rough fellows from behind, all armed with loaded sticks and yelling for “Fair play and Gloucester!”  Their determined rush carried the prize-fighters before them, the inner ropes snapped like threads, and in an instant the ring was a swirling,’ seething mass of figures, whips and sticks falling and clattering, whilst, face to face, in the middle of it all, so wedged that they could neither advance nor retreat, the smith and the west-countryman continued their long-drawn battle as oblivious of the chaos raging round them as two bulldogs would have been who had got each other by the throat.  The driving rain, the cursing and screams of pain, the swish of the blows, the yelling of orders and advice, the heavy smell of the damp cloth - every incident of that scene of my early youth comes back to me now in my old age as clearly as if it had been but yesterday. It was not easy for us to observe anything at the time, however, for we were ourselves in the midst of the frantic crowd, swaying about and carried occasionally quite off our feet, but endeavouring to keep our places behind Jackson and Berkeley Craven, who, with sticks and whips meeting over their heads, were still calling the rounds and superintending the fight. “The ring’s broken!” shouted Sir Lothian Hume.  “I appeal to the referee!  The fight is null and void.” “You villain!” cried my uncle, hotly; “this is your doing.” “You have already an account to answer for with me,” said Hume, with his sinister sneer, and as he spoke he was swept by the rush of the crowd into my uncle’s very arms.  The two men’s faces were not more than a few inches apart, and Sir Lothian’s bold eyes had to sink before the imperious scorn which gleamed coldly in those of my uncle. “We will settle our accounts, never fear, though I degrade myself in meeting such a blackleg.  What is it, Craven?” “We shall have to declare a draw, Tregellis.” “My man has the fight in hand.” “I cannot help it.  I cannot attend to my duties when every moment I am cut over with a whip or a stick.” Jackson suddenly made a wild dash into the crowd, but returned with empty hands and a rueful face. “They’ve stolen my timekeeper’s watch,” he cried.  “A little cove snatched it out of my hand.” My uncle clapped his hand to his fob. “Mine has gone also!” he cried. “Draw it at once, or your man will get hurt,” said Jackson, and we saw that as the undaunted smith stood up to Wilson for another round, a dozen rough fellows were clustering round him with bludgeons. “Do you consent to a draw, Sir Lothian Hume?” “I do.” “And you, Sir Charles?” “Certainly not.” “The ring is gone.” “That is no fault of mine.” “Well, I see no help for it.  As referee I order that the men be withdrawn, and that the stakes be returned to their owners.” “A draw!  A draw!” shrieked every one, and the crowd in an instant dispersed in every direction, the pedestrians running to get a good lead upon the London road, and the Corinthians in search of their horses and carriages.  Harrison ran over to Wilson’s corner and shook him by the hand. “I hope I have not hurt you much.” “I’m hard put to it to stand.  How are you?” “My head’s singin’ like a kettle.  It was the rain that helped me.” “Yes, I thought I had you beat one time.  I never wish a better battle.” “Nor me either.  Good-bye.” And so those two brave-hearted fellows made their way amidst the yelping roughs, like two wounded lions amidst a pack of wolves and jackals.  I say again that, if the ring has fallen low, it is not in the main the fault of the men who have done the fighting, but it lies at the door of the vile crew of ring-side parasites and ruffians, who are as far below the honest pugilist as the welsher and the blackleg are below the noble racehorse which serves them as a pretext for their villainies.

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