“Struth, his jibs wouldn’t earn peanuts ez gripman on a mussel barrer,” said the youth next Benno, sociably.
The clerk looked wise “That’s right, Ned,” he said. “But Dinny’s a good ernough spruicher. Givin’ chat t’ aujinces this size jiggers up the ’uman organ, I tell yeh.”
Feathers, on a seat behind, touched the lad on the shoulder, and edged him away from Benno with a sidelong motion of the head. “Knows a bit erbout elercutlon, he does,” he said confidentially behind his hand, “somethin’ iv a horater ’imseif. Fam’ly’s in Parlymint.”
“Gar-rn?” said the lad.
“’S truth,” Feathers assured him. “Mother’s got the contrac’ fer scrubbin’ ’n’ dustin’.”
“Get yer ear out, Ned, ’r he’ll bite it,” said Benno sourly to the stranger, suspecting mischief.
Benno had been to a couple of fights before this, and felt entitled to be regarded as an authority. Down in his heart he cherished an idea on the strength of the experience thus acquired, that, should occasion arise, he could give an excellent account of himself. He had never hit a man, but it seemed easy, and he had magnificent dreams of outing fourteen-stone foes with a right cross which he had frequently tried on a bed bolster with success. This visionary feat always took place under the eyes of astonished and admiring multitudes.
Two featherweights were scrambling in the ring, exchanging wild swings, and the referee was dodging about, looking for points in a pointless exhibition, Benno watched closely, making a little critical ‘tut-tut-tut’ now and again.
During the rests the clerk instructed the lad next him with a wise old air. The lad chewed gravely, and said little. Occasionally he jerked a quaint grimace at an acquaintance on the off side, but nothing in his attitude was intended to disturb the clerk’s pleasing faith in himself. The lad had a thick ear.
“O’Brien ’ll out ‘im this round,” said Benno with calm confidence, when the gong sounded. “He’ll get that crool right iv his ercross, ’n’ Scorcher’ll go t’bunk, you take it frim the prefessor.”
“Bin in the game yerself, Ned,” said the lad, with a touch of mock reverence.
Benno lowered his voice. He had an uneasy consciousness of the proximity of Feathers and Nicholas Don, the driver. “Oh, nothin’ t’ speak of,” he said in the way of a man deliberately hiding his light. “Matter ev a scrap ’er two.”
“Perfeshional?” asked the lad.
“No-o,” said Benno, “not yet.”
O’Brien aimed a blind swing at Scorcher; Scorcher took it on his glove, and prodded his man a straight left flush. “Ha-ha,” cried Benno, starting up excitedly. “What’d I tell you? O’Brien’ll out ’im; O’Brien’s got ’im goin’! He’s got ’im goin’! Five t’ O’Brien! I bet five t’ one O’Brien!”
“In cherry-bobs!” said a derisive voice.
Before the clerk could frame an apt rejoinder, the Scorcher planted a left on O’Brien’s mark, and a right on his chin, and O’Brien went down. Eleven seconds later he was carried to his corner, as limp as a dead eel.
“A quitter!” said Benno, disgustedly. “The Scorcher never touched ’im. That’s often the way with clever sparrers, they’ve got science, but no ’eart.”
Then Benno went on to explain to the lad with the thick ear how O’Brien must have beaten the Scorcher to dough if he had kept at him. The lad seemed quite grateful for the polite attention.
“If ’e’d on’y kep’ that left iv ’is goin’,” said Benno regretfully.
A youth in front rounded on the clerk with vociferous disgust. “Garn, get work!” he said. “O’Brien never had a possible. ’E ain’t got a left ’and, and ’e ain’t got a right. ’E’s a gander. ’E don’t know enough to win a tombstone novice tournament up in the ’Ome for Incurables.”
“Oh,” said Benno, composedly, “p’raps I know somethin’ erbout the game. It’s just possible. Then again, o’ course, I may be little Georgie, the gazob, ’n’ maybe I’m goat ernough t’ gnaw the posters off the ’oardin if I ain’t watched.” He looked about to note the effect of this preposterous supposition, and then warmed up. “But, all the same, Ned, I’m bettin’ twenty t’ five in quids O’Brien does Scorcher up inside seven rounds with two-ounce gloves. Come, now!”
“G’ out,” snorted the other; “you don’t know boxin’ from dominoes. Get back t’ the socks.”
Benno grew rash. Money was nothing to him. “I’ll make it a ’undred t’ twenty,” he said, “’n’ arrange the match meseif. A ’undred t’ twenty in Jimmy O’Gobs. Say what?” He even plunged his hand in his trousers pocket, where lurked three and fourpence and a bone stud. “Is it a bet?” he asked, defiantly.
“My name ain’t Chirnside,” growled the youth, quite over-whelmed. “I ain’t got twenty ticks.”
“Then get ’em ’n’ pull the string,” retorted the clerk. He looked about him magnificently. Several people were regarding him with marked respect. Benno exulted. He felt that he was being mistaken for a bookmaker. “Listen t’ the oof bird twitter,” he said “How does it talk ’em down.” He slapped his pocket.
“What do yo’ think of Brophy’s chance in the big fight, young gentleman?” asked the greybeard on Benno’s left, with proper diffidence.
Benno looked him over slowly, somewhat superciliously, took out a cigar-case, and drew out a cigar. It was a somewhat worn and ragged cigar, and Benno, who was no smoker, had once taken it for a threepenny shout. It came in handy now. He lit it like a millionaire. Then he condescended to speak. “If yet wantin’ t’ pick up good money dirt cheap, Whiskers,” he said, “back Brophy.”
“Fer a win or a place?” asked the derisive voice.
Young Mr Dickson felt he could afford to ignore the interjection. “Put yer plate on Brophy,” he repeated, “his chances ’re all right. He’s got the quids ez good ez in ’is ’and. Hark to the prophet. I admit the big feller’s strong ’n’ game, but what’s ’e done?” He looked hard at the old gentleman, toying daintily with his ragged cigar the while, and repeated, “What’s ’e done?”
“Yes, yes, that’s the point,” said the greybeard.
“Whereas, look at Brophy,” continued Benno for the benefit of the company, “he’s bin through ’em all. He’s a bit small fer this, but he’s got the science. He’s used t’ handlin’ big blokes, too, ’n’ you just watch out ’n’ see him quilt Mr Rocker Dodd from gong t’ beddy-bye. Dodd won’t ’it ’im, he’s too shifty. He’ll just pelt ’em inter Rocker’s biscuit barrel, ’n’ slide out every time the ’eavyweight offers t’ pass ’im one.”
“Ever seen either of ’em fight?” asked the unbeliever in front.
For a moment Benno was taken back. As a matter of fact, he had not. He rallied quickly. “Have I seen ’em! Have I what?” he retorted. “Brophy’s ez quick ez dam’ it, ’n’ gets erbout a bit, I’m tellin’ yeh.”
“I ain’t seen Brophy,” growled the other, “but this Dodd can shift. He ain’t as slow as a hearse.”
“You’re comin’ on all right, Ned,” said Benno soothingly. “When you’re growed up you’ll know a bit, I promise yeh, but just now I wouldn’t open me head too wide erbout boxin’ iv I was you.”
Benno was very excitable and very demonstrative during the other preliminary bouts. He brandished a notebook and talked in hundreds with the glibness of a King of the Ring. He even shouted directions to the combatants, using their Christian names familiarly.
Feathers and the Don, sitting behind, were enjoying themselves immensely. They refrained from interfering for fear of spoiling ‘our Mr Dickson’s’ flow of skite, and the clerk, in his great exultation, had forgotten their existence.
But it was when the fight of the night came on that Benno excelled himself. While the men were in their corners his enthusiasm in the cause of Brophy manifested itself in a reckless offering of the odds to all and sundry. He stood on his chair gesticulating over the heads of the standing crowd, till those behind him howled him down.
Mr Dickson’s cheap, dry cigar burst into flame at this point, but that did not disconcert him. Threats of personal violence he treated with a cold scornful smile. He hoped he was looking as if he could fight a bit.
In his calmer moments our hero invited the lad with the thick ear to call on him at his hotel—Benno, it must not be forgotten, lived in a humble five-roomed cottage with his ma and his sister Amelia—and he would teach him a few hits that might be useful to him in his dealings with a cruel world.
In the first round Mike Brophy showed himself a flash fighter, and very fanciful in his movements. He had a fine figure and feline grace, and was anxious to display himself in the limelight, and, while he was pouting his chest and striking attitudes for the benefit of his artistic minority, Rocker Dodd, who was a hard-headed, lumbering pug with no eye for the beautiful, swung in a punch, a punch that lifted the smaller man up off his two feet, and dropped him like a bag of scraps.
“On’y a slip!” cried Benno. “He’s up agin all right.” And so he was, but looking like a man full of warm whisky suddenly ejected into the cold night.
Rocker sprang at Mike again, and Mike ducked by instinct into safety under his enemy’s wing.
“What’d I tell you,” squealed the clerk. “See that? What’d I tell yeh? Ain’t ’e a beaut? Rocker can’t ’it ’im. He can’ ’it ’im, that’s what.” Rocker shook his man off, and punched with right and left, putting a lop-sided head on Brophy, and then the gong sounded, and a thankful fighter sank into Mike’s corner.
“Ain’t ’e a beaut?” vociferated Benno. “Good man, Brophy! It’s twenty t’ one on yeh! Twenty t’ one Brophy!” cried the clerk, raising his voice. “Twenty t’ one Brophy.”
A red-faced, pimply man bobbed up out of the crowd, and pinned Benno with a fat forefinger. “Done!” he said, “I’ll take that, Ned.”
“Twenty t’ one in quids erbout Brophy!” repeated Benno, flourishing his pocket-book.
“Same fer me, mister,” said a sport with a broken nose, tugging at Benno’s coat.
Several others were anxious to do business with Mr Dickson. “I’ll have a dollar worth in that,” said the lad with the thick ear. “Referee’s decision.”
Benno was too elated to heed them. He was shouting expert advice to Brophy’s corner, “Give ’im the tow’l!” he cried, disgustedly. “He don’t want no sermons from you. Wag the washin’, blarst yeh!” He turned to the lad with the thick ear. “Wish I was in his corner,” he said.
“Bitter bad mozzle fer Brophy yeh ain’t,” said the other. “He’d be glad t’ know all you don’t.”
In the second round Brophy was more anxious to keep out of trouble than to show his elegant shape, and he sprinted about the ring with Rocker lumbering after him, punching anyhow and anywhere. Twice Mike was down, thinking, but that did not damp Benno’s ardour.
The clerk was now offering thirty to one Brophy with splendid prodigality, and there were many takers whom he didn’t even notice.
“He’ll let the big bloke wear ’imself out, ’n’ then he’ll dish ’im up on the arf shell with a taste iv lemon,” said ‘our Mr Dickson’.
Presently Brophy was bleeding from a cut over the eye, and had a numbed nose and a split lip, and Rocker Dodd was wishing the fight would begin in earnest.
During the next interval Benno was more confident than ever. He said it was picking up money backing Brophy. He casually offered to lay two hundred to ten about it, He addressed Brophy like an old and valued friend, advising him to keep cool and fight his own hand.
Mike tried to make the third round a foot-race, but Mr Dodd was there, and wouldn’t hear of it. He blocked Brophy in the corners, and punched him, and his punches had all the nervous energy that is in the heels of an exuberant young pack mule. When they reached Mike. Mike’s feet sprang up, and he struck the boards with the back of his head.
For the fifth time in two minutes Mike was down, and now his better judgement prevailed, and he pretended to be asleep in order to evade the responsibility of getting up again. The seconds called him early, the ten-seconds-check reminded him it was time to be up and doing, but Mike slept on. It was all over. The referee, in a few terse, epigrammatic words declared Rocker Dodd the winner.
“Yaha-h, a schlinter!” cried Benno. “A schlinter! A schlinter!”
The red-faced man was working his way towards Benno through the press, pinning the clerk with that imperious forefinger. He took Benno by a button. “That’s a matter o’ twenty jim you’re owin’ me, Ned,” he said.
“Ah, scratch!” retorted the clerk. “That wasn’t no bet.”
The sport with the perverted nose and the lad with the thick ear were clamouring for an immediate settlement of their claims. Several others, thinking the bluff might be worth it, put in large demands. The red-faced man was furious and threatening. He recited terrible things that would happen to ‘our Mr Dickson’ if he did not instantly hand out twenty pounds.
The painful nature of the situation flashed upon Benno. He had been taken too seriously. He went chalk white, his legs wobbled foolishly.
“Bli’me, ’twas on’y a joke,” he protested. “I was just talkin’. I ain’t got a bean.”
“A blessed welsher!” yelled the red-faced man.
“An infernal gun!” cried the sport.
Twenty hands fell upon Benno. He went down into dark night that was full of arms and feet and broken chairs, and his only sensation was of being a mere scrap of himself whirling in the blackness, in which the arms, the chairs, and the feet continually multiplied themselves.
The packer and Nicholas Don, ably assisted by six policemen, effected a rescue, and what they rescued was a weary fragment. Very reluctant were the police to give Feathers charge of it, for it was ragged, dusty, blood-stained, hatless and battered, and would have been a striking object lesson in the dock next morning.
However, the packer’s eloquence prevailed, and he and Nick took the weary fragment away with them, wrapped in Nick’s over-coat. Without that coat it would not have been possible to introduce the clerk into mixed company on a tram, what remained of his clothes being hardly sufficient to establish identification.
“Well, you’re the king cop-out,” said the packer, having delivered Benno into his sister’s hands at his own door “If yeh was t’ go t’ church the boiler ’ud bust.”
Benno answered never a word. His splendid spirit was broken.