“I suppose you know what you are doing? You realize that you’re a professional pug from this onwards, and that if ever you fight again——”
“I’ll never fight again.”
“Happen you won’t,” said the woman, and the Master turned a terrible eye upon her.
“Well, I suppose you know your own business best. Up you jump. One hundred and fifty-one, minus two, one hundred and forty-nine—twelve pounds difference, but youth and condition on the other scale. Well, the sooner we get to work the better, for I wish to catch the seven o’clock express at Hellifield. Twenty three-minute rounds, with one-minute intervals, and Queensberry rules. Those are the conditions, are they not?”
“Very good, then, we may go across.”
The two combatants had overcoats thrown over their shoulders, and the whole party, backers, fighters, seconds, and the referee, filed out of the room. A police inspector was waiting for them in the road. He had a notebook in his hand—that terrible weapon which awes even the London cabman.
“I must take your names, gentlemen, in case it should be necessary to proceed for breach of peace.”
“You don’t mean to stop the fight?” cried Armitage, in a passion of indignation. “I’m Mr. Armitage, of Croxley, and this is Mr. Wilson, and we’ll be responsible that all is fair and as it should be.’
“I’ll take the names in case it should be necessary to proceed,” said the inspector, impassively.
“But you know me well.”
“If you was a dook or even a judge it would be all the same,” said the inspector. “It’s the law, and there’s an end. I’ll not take upon myself to stop the fight, seeing that gloves are to be used, but I’ll take the names of all concerned. Silas Craggs, Robert Montgomery, Edward Barton, James Stapleton, of London. Who seconds Silas Craggs?”
“I do,” said the woman. “Yes, you can stare, but it’s my job, and no one else’s. Anastasia’s the name—four a’s.”
“Johnson. Anastasia Johnson. If you jug him, you can jug me.”
“Who talked of juggin’, ye fool?” growled the Master. “Coom on, Mr. Armitage, for I’m fair sick o’ this loiterin’.”
The inspector fell in with the procession, and proceeded, as they walked up the hill, to bargain in his official capacity for a front seat, where he could safeguard the interests of the law, and in his private capacity to lay out thirty shillings at seven to one with Mr. Armitage. Through the door they passed, down a narrow lane walled with a dense bank of humanity, up a wooden ladder to a platform, over a rope which was slung waist-high from four corner-stakes, and then Montgomery realized that he was in that ring in which his immediate destiny was to be worked out. On the stake at one corner there hung a blue-and-white streamer. Barton led him across, the overcoat dangling loosely from his shoulders, and he sat down on a wooden stool. Barton and another man, both wearing white sweaters, stood beside him. The so-called ring was a square, twenty feet each way. At the opposite angle was the sinister figure of the Master, with his red-headed woman and a rough-faced friend to look after him. At each corner were metal basins, pitchers of water, and sponges.
During the hubbub and uproar of the entrance Montgomery was too bewildered to take things in. But now there was a few minutes’ delay, for the referee had lingered behind, and so he looked quietly about him. It was a sight to haunt him for a lifetime. Wooden seats had been built in, sloping upwards to the tops of the walls. Above, instead of a ceiling, a great flight of crows passed slowly across a square of grey cloud. Right up to the top-most benches the folk were banked—broadcloth in front, corduroys and fustian behind; faces turned everywhere upon him. The grey reek of the pipes filled the building, and the air was pungent with the acrid smell of cheap, strong tobacco. Everywhere among the human faces were to be seen the heads of the dogs. They growled and yapped from the back benches. In that dense mass of humanity one could hardly pick out individuals, but Montgomery’s eyes caught the brazen gleam of the helmets held upon the knees of the ten yeomen of his escort. At the very edge of the platform sat the reporters, five of them: three locals, and two all the way from London. But where was the all-important referee? There was no sign of him, unless he were in the centre of that angry swirl of men near the door.
Mr. Stapleton had stopped to examine the gloves which were to be used, and entered the building after the combatants. He had started to come down that narrow lane with the human walls which led to the ring. But already it had gone abroad that the Wilson champion was a gentleman, and that another gentleman had been appointed as referee. A wave of suspicion passed through the Croxley folk. They would have one of their own people for a referee. They would not have a stranger. His path was stopped as he made for the ring. Excited men flung themselves in front of him; they waved their fists in his face and cursed him. A woman howled vile names in his ear. Somebody struck at him with an umbrella. “Go thou back to Lunnon. We want noan o’ thee. Go thou back!” they yelled.
Stapleton, with his shiny hat cocked backwards, and his large, bulging forehead swelling from under it, looked round him from beneath his bushy brows. He was in the centre of a savage and dangerous mob. Then he drew his watch from his pocket and held it dial upwards in his palm.
“In three minutes,” said he, “I will declare the fight off.”
They raged round him. His cool face and that aggressive top-hat irritated them. Grimy hands were raised. But it was difficult, somehow, to strike a man who was so absolutely indifferent.
“In two minutes I declare the fight off.”
They exploded into blasphemy. The breath of angry men smoked into his placid face. A gnarled, grimy fist vibrated at the end of his nose. “We tell thee we want noan o’ thee. Get thou back where thou com’st from.”
“In one minute I declare the fight off.”
Then the calm persistence of the man conquered the swaying, mutable, passionate crowd.
“Let him through, mon. Happen there’ll be no fight after a’.”
“Let him through.”
“Bill, thou loomp, let him pass. Dost want the fight declared off?”
“Make room for the referee!—room for the Lunnon referee!”
And half pushed, half carried, he was swept up to the ring. There were two chairs by the side of it, one for him and one for the timekeeper. He sat down, his hands on his knees, his hat at a more wonderful angle than ever, impassive but solemn, with the aspect of one who appreciates his responsibilities.
Mr. Armitage, the portly butcher, made his way into the ring and held up two fat hands, sparkling with rings, as a signal for silence.
“Gentlemen!” he yelled. And then in a crescendo shriek, “Gentlemen!”
“And ladies!” cried somebody, for indeed there was a fair sprinkling of women among the crowd. “Speak up, owd man!” shouted another. “What price pork chops?” cried somebody at the back. Everybody laughed, and the dogs began to bark. Armitage waved his hands amidst the uproar as if he were conducting an orchestra. At last the babel thinned into silence.
“Gentlemen,” he yelled, “the match is between Silas Craggs, whom we call the Master of Croxley, and Robert Montgomery, of the Wilson Coal-pits. The match was to be under eleven-eight. When they were weighed just now Craggs weighed eleven-seven, and Montgomery ten-nine. The conditions of the contest are—the best of twenty three-minute rounds with two-ounce gloves. Should the fight run to its full length it will, of course, be decided upon points. Mr. Stapleton, the well-known London referee, has kindly consented to see fair play. I wish to say that Mr. Wilson and I, the chief backers of the two men, have every confidence in Mr. Stapleton, and that we beg that you will accept his rulings without dispute.”
He then turned from one combatant to the other, with a wave of his hand.