“That was when he was hog-fat and living high. Work the grease out of him, and I lay there’s no great difference between them. Have you been weighed lately, Mr. Montgomery?”
It was the first direct question which had been asked him. He had stood in the midst of them, like a horse at a fair, and he was just beginning to wonder whether he was more angry or amused.
“I am just eleven stone,” said he.
“I said that he was a welter weight.”
“But suppose you was trained?” said the publican. “Wot then?”
“I am always in training.”
“In a manner of speakin’, do doubt, he is always in trainin’,” remarked the horsebreaker. “But trainin’ for everyday work ain’t the same as trainin’ with a trainer; and I dare bet, with all respec’ to your opinion, Mr. Wilson, that there’s half a stone of tallow on him at this minute.”
The young Cantab put his fingers on the assistant’s upper arm. Then with his other hand on his wrist he bent the forearm sharply, and felt the biceps, as round and hard as a cricket-ball, spring up under his fingers.
“Feel that!” said he.
The publican and horsebreaker felt it with an air of reverence.
“Good lad! He’ll do yet!” cried Purvis.
“Gentlemen,” said Montgomery,” I think that you will acknowledge that I have been very patient with you. I have listened to all that you have to say about my personal appearance, and now I must really beg that you will have the goodness to tell me what is the matter.”
They all sat down in their serious, businesslike way.
“That’s easy done, Mr. Montgomery,” said the fat-voiced publican. “But before sayin’ anything, we had to wait and see whether, in a way of speakin’, there was any need for us to say anything at all. Mr. Wilson thinks there is. Mr. Fawcett, who has the same right to his opinion, bein’ also a backer and one o’ the committee, thinks the other way.”
“I thought him too light built, and I think so now,” said the horsebreaker, still tapping his prominent teeth with the metal head of his riding-whip. “But happen he may pull through; and he’s a fine-made, buirdly young chap, so if you mean to back him, Mr. Wilson——”
“Which I do.”
“And you, Purvis?”
“I ain’t one to go back, Fawcett.”
“Well, I’ll stan’ to my share of the purse.”
“And well I knew you would,” said Purvis, “for it would be somethin’ new to find Isaac Fawcett as a spoil-sport. Well, then, we make up the hundred for the stake among us, and the fight stands—always supposin’ the young man is willin’.”
“Excuse all this rot, Mr. Montgomery,” said the University man, in a genial voice. “We’ve begun at the wrong end, I know, but we’ll soon straighten it out, and I hope that you will see your way to falling in with our views. In the first place, you remember the man whom you knocked out this morning? He is Barton—the famous Ted Barton.”
“I’m sure, sir, you may well be proud to have outed him in one round,” said the publican. “Why, it took Morris, the ten-stone-six champion, a deal more trouble than that before he put Barton to sleep. You’ve done a fine performance, sir, and happen you’ll do a finer, if you give yourself the chance.”
“I never heard of Ted Barton, beyond seeing the name on a medicine label,” said the assistant.
“Well, you may take it from me that he’s a slaughterer,” said the horsebreaker. “You’ve taught him a lesson that he needed, for it was always a word and a blow with him, and the word alone was worth five shillin’ in a public court. He won’t be so ready now to shake his nief in the face of everyone he meets. However, that’s neither here nor there.”
Montgomery looked at them in bewilderment.
“For goodness sake, gentlemen, tell me what it is you want me to do!” he cried.
“We want you to fight Silas Craggs, better known as the Master of Croxley.”
“Because Ted Barton was to have fought him next Saturday. He was the champion of the Wilson coal-pits, and the other was the Master of the iron-folk down at the Croxley smelters. We’d matched our man for a purse of a hundred against the Master. But you’ve queered our man, and he can’t face such a battle with a two-inch cut at the back of his head. There’s only one thing to be done, sir, and that is for you to take his place. If you can lick Ted Barton you may lick the Master of Croxley; but if you don’t we’re done, for there’s no one else who is in the same street with him in this district. It’s twenty rounds, two-ounce gloves, Queensberry rules, and a decision on points if you fight to the finish.”
For a moment the absurdity of the thing drove every other thought out of Montgomery’s head. But then there came a sudden revulsion. A hundred pounds!—all he wanted to complete his education was lying there ready to his hand, if only that hand were strong enough to pick it up. He had thought bitterly that morning that there was no market for his strength, but here was one where his muscle might earn more in an hour than his brains in a year. But a chill of doubt came over him.
“How can I fight for the coal-pits?” said he. “I am not connected with them.”
“Eh, lad, but thou art!” cried old Purvis. “We’ve got it down in writin’, and it’s clear enough. ‘Any one connected with the coal-pits.’ Doctor Oldacre is the coal-pit club doctor; thou art his assistant. What more can they want?”
“Yes, that’s right enough,” said the Cantab. “It would be a very sporting thing of you, Mr. Montgomery, if you would come to our help when we are in such a hole. Of course, you might not like to take the hundred pounds; but I have no doubt that, in the case of your winning, we could arrange that it should take the form of a watch or piece of plate, or any other shape which might suggest itself to you. You see, you are responsible for our having lost our champion, so we really feel that we have a claim upon you.”
“Give me a moment, gentlemen. It is very unexpected. I am afraid the doctor would never consent to my going—in fact, I am sure that he would not.”
“But he need never know—not before the fight, at any rate. We are not bound to give the name of our man. So long as he is within the weight limits on the day of the fight, that is all that concerns any one.”
The adventure and the profit would either of them have attracted Montgomery. The two combined were irresistible.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “I’ll do it!”
The three sprang from their seats. The publican had seized his right hand, the horse-dealer his left, and the Cantab slapped him on the back.
“Good lad! good lad!” croaked the publican. “Eh, mon, but if thou yark him, thou’ll rise in one day from being just a common doctor to the best-known mon ‘twixt here and Bradford. Thou art a witherin’ tyke, thou art, and no mistake; and if thou beat the Master of Croxley, thou’ll find all the beer thou want for the rest of thy life waiting for thee at the Four Sacks.”
“It is the most sporting thing I ever heard of in my life,” said young Wilson. “By George, sir, if you pull it off, you’ve got the constituency in your pocket, if you care to stand. You know the outhouse in my garden?”