Chapter XI

A Fight not in the Programme

“It’s Jack Thurtell,” whispered a man next Ralstone. “What devil’s game is he up to? Wherever he shows his head a shindy generally follows. He’s out for a row. He’s as drunk as drunk can be.”

This was pretty evident. Thurtell was gripping the edge of the platform to steady himself. There was an ugly look in his deep-set eyes which meant mischief. His glance fixed on Ralstone.

“I believe you call yourself a Corinthian,” he shouted thickly. “You——”

“No, I don’t. You may call me one if you like,” broke in Ralstone, answering the glitter in Thurtell’s eyes with contempt and defiance written in his own.

“I’ll call you something else if you give me any of your sauce,” retorted Thurtell insolently.

Ralstone would have started to his feet, and something like a free fight might have followed, but Walsham pinned him down, and Cribb, eager to protect his noble patrons and preserve order, advanced to the edge of the platform.

“None of your insults, Mr. Thurtell. You ought to know better. If you can’t behave yourself, there’s plenty here who can teach you. Now then, what do you want?”

“I’ll tell you in two-twos, if you’ll give me a hearing. I know how to behave myself in any company, from a Royal Levee to a boozing ken. If I’ve said anything to offend you, Tom Cribb, I apologise. You’re one of the finest and biggest hearted men that ever stepped.”

“Then don’t forget that when you insult any of my friends you insult me. Now what is it you want?”

“Just this. The Tulips have planked down a paltry five guineas, led by their bell-wether. I’ll double that and here’s the brass.”

He pulled out a handful of coin and counted out ten, each coin jumping a foot high as he rang them on the boards.

“Of course, I’m much obliged to Mr. Thurtell, but we’d ha’ liked it better if he’d been a bit more polite,” said Cribb, not over delighted. Thurtell, who ran a public-house in Long Acre, had a bad reputation, and it was doubtful if the money had been honestly come by. “I’m not sure whether I want your guineas. We’ve got enough to buy a good cup.”

“Take the coin and buy a better one,” roared Thurtell. “I know what’s in your mind. Let me tell you it’s clean money. Perhaps you don’t know that I’ve won my action to-day against that thief Barber Beaumont and his swindling Insurance Company. A £1,000 damages! A cool £1,000! Isn’t that so, boys?”

He wheeled round and hurled the question at the mob.

“Quite true, Mr. Thurtell,” “Good old Terrible Jack!” and a few more affirmations, more or less strengthened by lurid adjectives, came from different parts of the room. Thurtell had evidently brought a strong party with him. As a matter of fact he had been flinging his money about in the adjacent taverns ever since the jury had decided in his favour over a claim for the insurance of a house in his possession which had been burnt down​—​a claim which the company had disputed.

Tom Cribb did not argue the point. He picked up the coins, and handed them to another member of the P.R. who was acting as treasurer.

“Now then, boys,” went on Thurtell in a stentorian voice, “would you like to see some real fun? You’ve had enough of the pugs. What about a set to between gentlemen? I challenge the young ‘Pink’ over there.”

He shot his finger out towards Jack Ralstone.

“That’s not in the list. I’m in the chair here,” said Cribb, stolidly, “and I’m not going to have it.”

Ralstone was on his feet in a flash, to the horror of Lord Walsham.

“I’d like to obey your order, Cribb,” said he, very cool and resolute, “but I’ve been challenged, and if I say nothing it will be thought I’m afraid. Now, I don’t care that, for Mr. Thurtell.”

He snapped his fingers, and the shouts of applause shook the rafters. “He’s a game ’un,” “Let the swells have a turn”​—​“Two to one on the Pink”​—​ “Three to one on Jack Thurtell”​—​were heard amid the babel of sounds.

Cribb talked for a few moments with Spring, and by their glances it was clear that Jack Ralstone was the subject of their conference. Meanwhile the raucous voices of the mob made everything inaudible. Spring came across to Ralstone.

“Are you in earnest, Mr. Ralstone?” said he.

“Of course I am. I had a little mill with the bully at Andover, just after you knocked Neate out of time, and I downed him. This is a planned thing to get his own back. All right, I mean to spoil the plan.”

“But I can’t quite make it out. How did Thurtell know you would be here?”

“He didn’t know. It was coincidence. At least, I think so. But …”

It suddenly occurred to Ralstone that Thurtell’s presence might be due to the fellow whom he suspected of spying upon him. Here might be the key of the mystery. But it was not wholly satisfactory, and, in fact, only feasible on the supposition that the spy had been in touch with Thurtell all day long, and knew where to send to him after his victory, no matter where he might be carousing. It was not impossible, but certainly improbable.

“Well, what about it, Tom,” went on Ralstone impatiently. “Has Cribb any objection?”

“He doesn’t care for the exhibition, but he doesn’t oppose it.”

“That’s settled then. See here, Spring, I’m not going to let that boasting bully’s taunt about the subscriptions go unanswered. I shall give £10 more towards your cup.”

“You’re a thorough gentleman, Mr. Ralstone, and a thorough sportsman,” cried Spring heartily, “and I thank you. But you’ve done quite enough without your generous offer.”

“Say no more. Mr. Cribb——”

Tom Cribb crossed the platform at the sound of Jack’s voice, and his eyes beamed with pleasure when he heard of the proposed addition to the fund.

“It’s very generous of you, sir, and I shall be pleased to announce it. I was beginning to be sorry I accepted Thurtell’s money. I should have felt ashamed if an outsider and a rogue topped the list over you Corinthians. You’ve scored a higher throw, and the thing’s done.”

“And the match?” demanded Jack eagerly.

Cribb’s experienced eyes went over Jack Ralstone’s vigorous, well-balanced body, noted the deep chest, the length of arm, the glow of perfect health, and the firm lips and bold chin, the fearless eyes, and turned to Spring.

“What do you say, Tom? Has Mr. Ralstone a chance? Thurtell’s a hard hitter, I’m told.”

“He can hit as hard as he likes, but he’s got to get home,” said Spring dryly. “I’ve seen Mr. Ralstone in the buff, and I’ve had the gloves on with him, and he’s about as nimble on his pins as I am. It’s Lombard Street to a chiney orange on Mr. Ralstone. And he’s in fine fettle. too. He’s practised every morning at Jackson’s rooms since he’s been in London. Isn’t that so, sir, and you’ve had your bit o’ fun at night, too. If you don’t overdo it, letting yourself go once in a way doesn’t hurt. Keeps you from training too fine, and being anxious. You want to keep the devil in you in readiness when you call upon him.”

“That’s a devilish good way of putting it, Tom Spring,” laughed Jack. “Better to call upon the devil to come to you than go to the devil, eh?”

“That’s a good ’un, sir,” said Cribb, with a grim smile. “Look here, Mr. Ralstone, I’ve got an idee. Instead of your handing over your ten shiners free, gratis, and for nothing, s’pose I tell ’em that you’ll give the coin if you win. Fightin’ or sparrin’ for love——”

“I’m hanged if it’s love in the case, Cribb,” interrupted Jack.

“Maybe not, sir, but the argyment’s the same. What I says is that to fight in earnest you must have something to go after, just like a game o’ cards. Cards is nothing without a stake.”

“Have it your own way, Tom. But if the fellow says he’ll give the same if he wins, what’ll you do? You can’t in fairness refuse.”

This was a poser, and Cribb put on his considering cap.

“I s’pose that is so,” said he at last. “Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do if it’s agreeable to you. I won’t say a word about your ten guineas until the rounds are over. If you win I shall then announce the thing.”

“And if I lose?”

“I shall keep my mouth shut, and you’ll keep your money in your pocket.”

“No, I don’t like that. The money was to go to the cup in any case. You know what you said about your not wanting Thurtell to top the list.”

“Aye, and I say it still. You’ll win, take my word for it. I know a born fighter when I see one, but it’ll have to be as I say. I’m the M.C. on this here occasion.”

Jack saw that Cribb was determined, and he said no more.

Meanwhile the crowd was becoming restive. The desire to see a mill between “swells” had bitten deep into their souls. They would have much preferred it to be without gloves, but this wasn’t at all likely. Thurtell was egging them on, and indulging in coarse pleasantry. He was standing defiantly, his legs wide apart, his hands in his trousers pockets.

“When you’ve finished giving the ‘Pink’ your tips, Cribb, I’m ready for him. How much do you and Spring charge for your lessons?”

There was a roar of laughter at this.

Cribb stepped to the edge of the platform, and stared at Thurtell.

Mr. Ralstone will give you your lesson, Mr. Thurtell,” said he, without moving a muscle of his stolid face.

Another burst of laughter, heartier and more stentorian than the former, and yelling, stamping of feet and sticks, and clapping of hands followed when the ex-champion invited Thurtell to step up on the platform.

“I suppose you don’t mean to back out,” Cribb added dryly.

“Back out!” roared Thurtell, his face aflame. “What the devil do you mean, Cribb?”

“You understand well enough, Mr. Thurtell, if you haven’t forgotten your appearance in this here very Fives Court, and Tom Belcher.”

A sudden silence fell upon the crowd. The majority knew what Cribb referred to. Thurtell had always posed not merely as a patron of the prize ring, but as a boxer as well. He had a certain amount of skill, but a much greater amount of vanity, and a few years before he had had the temerity to challenge Belcher to fight for £500 a side, and being flush of money actually deposited his stake. It was thought to be a bluff, and Belcher, a short time after, observing Thurtell at the Fives Court, mounted the stage, and asked for Mr. Thurtell’s attention.

“I’ve given up prize fighting,” said Tom, “but if Mr. Thurtell will come up here I’ll set to with the gloves with him for anything he likes, and he that takes the gloves off first shall be considered the loser.”

Thurtell said not a word, and he lost his reputation for courage among decent boxers from that moment.

It was clear that Cribb’s sarcastic reminder went home. For a moment Thurtell’s truculent look vanished, but it soon returned.

“An idle tale,” he retorted contemptuously. “Have you told that piece of silly gossip to put me off? If so, you’ll find yourself mistaken, and yonder Tulip also.”

And with that he vaulted to the stage, and striding towards Neate asked him to act as his second. Neate assented.

The preliminaries were soon settled. Two rounds and no more was the dictum, and the two combatants, stripped to their shirts and trousers, rolled up their sleeves, and their seconds fastened on the gloves. Neither observed the usual preface, the shaking of hands to denote there was no ill-feeling. Then they faced each other.

Tom Spring was Jack Ralstone’s second, and had warned the impetuous young man to keep himself well in hand, and play the waiting game.

“He’s a rusher, and an ill-tempered one into the bargain. It’s your fight, if you keep cool and watch your chance. Directly he misses one of his heavy blows he’s done for. See that he does miss.”

The boxers contrasted strongly. They were about the same height, but Thurtell was the heavier. If it should come to a wrestle, and Jack was thrown with Thurtell on the top, as he would try to be, it might mean a broken rib. Ralstone was some years younger, and the model of youthful symmetry, but he looked a mere stripling by the side of the burly Thurtell. Jack’s attitude was perfectly correct. That of Thurtell was clumsy, and in the opinion of the expert he held his fists awkwardly.

The two advanced, circled round each other, Thurtell crouching somewhat, his fists low as if challenging Ralstone to strike at his unguarded face. Jack, however, was in no hurry. He wanted his antagonist to show his tactics. As a boxer with some smattering of professionalism, Thurtell probably had some favourite dodge or blow which would end the fight at an early stage. It is a failing which many boxers have, who think themselves cleverer than they really are. A trick, no matter how ingenious it may be, is still a trick, and once exhibited it becomes the property of the world. Another disadvantage is that every trick has its answer, and that answer is sometimes disastrous for the trickster.

Thurtell had a trick of which he was very proud. Spring knew all about it, as did other boxers, and he uttered a warning against what Jack was bound to expect sooner or later. Mindful of Spring’s words the young man, while hovering round with the light, elastic tread of a cat, and ready to move quick as a flash in any direction, kept his glance fixed on his opponent’s eyes. It seemed to him that they showed a lack of fire, that the man was not so confident as when he threw out his boastful challenge. Either the stimulus of drink was evaporating under the inevitable reaction, or Cribb’s inconvenient reminder was still rankling.

Jack had no intention of attacking Thurtell’s unguarded face. He preferred gradually to feel his way, and allow his antagonist to disclose his method. Thurtell, it was clear, was not a scientific fighter. He had not had enough practice with experts, and he had not the necessary coolness and patience. But he was not to be despised on that account. The slogger can hit, and science doesn’t always win.

Thurtell soon got tired of Jack’s dancing round him, and having to turn constantly. What is to-day called “leg-work” did not suit him. To bring matters to an issue he suddenly lowered his head, and dashed within Jack’s guard, so that the young fellow’s length of reach should not be of much avail. Jack knew that the trick blow was coming, and instead of ducking his head as Thurtell evidently expected, he closed with his opponent and got his chin over the attacker’s shoulder. Thurtell’s intention was to administer a “hammer blow” beneath Jack’s chin, but he was not quick enough to get it in before the target was well out of the way, and his fist met nothing but empty air.

Thurtell had put all his strength and weight into the blow, and the impetus almost threw him off his balance and forced back Jack’s body slightly. Before Thurtell had recovered, Jack had broken away, and delivered his lightning blows left and right on Thurtell’s ribs, one going perilously near the “mark.” Thurtell did not attempt to guard himself​—​perhaps he did not know how​—​and though he was breathing painfully he followed his nimble antagonist with the intention of forcing him to the ropes, where he might possibly get another chance of “in fighting” with better results.

It was to no purpose. Ralstone got in another smart tap, still on the body, and swerved on one side before the heavier man could retaliate. This method of fighting did not suit Thurtell’s supporters, who jeered and shouted that the “Corinthian” hadn’t the pluck to take punishment, but as Ralstone’s idea was to “give” rather than to “take” he was unmoved by the outcry.

But it is always the unexpected which happens. Jack, exulting in the conviction that he had taken the measure of his man, recklessly ventured within reach of his opponent’s fists on purpose to show his agility in springing aside. He succeeded cleverly several times, but, with the over-confidence of youth, did it once too often. His foot slipping, up came Thurtell’s hammer fist and caught him, not on the point of the chin, but sufficiently near to stagger him. For one instant a strange giddiness seized him, and had Thurtell chosen to repeat the blow he must have been knocked out. But Thurtell rushed in and they closed in a wrestle. Thurtell hadn’t the slightest doubt that his weight and muscle would tell, but he hadn’t bargained for the Somersetshire grip in which Jack was proficient. To the amazement of every one down went the fellow with a thud which shook the platform. He had been thrown by a cross buttock and lay for a few seconds gasping.

The round was finished and in Ralstone’s favour. Thurtell was up to time and renewed his old tactics, but the fire had gone out of his attack, and his blows not only had little strength behind them, but fell short. Ralstone had learned his lesson, and while not less agile, was more cautious. He was prepared for his antagonist’s favourite coup, and keeping his chin well down he seized the chance when it came, feinted with his right, and suddenly changing his feet, sent in with his left as straight a blow as boxer ever delivered. It had in it the whole weight of his body and it caught Thurtell between the eyes. The man went down like a bullock under the pole-axe.

Thurtell was lying like a log. Quite twenty seconds had gone over before he opened his eyes and stared stupidly at Neate, who was trying to bring him to.

“What’s all this?” he muttered between gasps of breath.

“You’ve lost Mr. Thurtell. I told you not to rush.” Thurtell made no answer. Apparently he did not quite realise the meaning of Neate’s words. But they sank soon into his sluggish brain, and he made an effort to rise.

“I’m not done yet. We’ll have another round. Then you’ll see.”

“Hold your tongue,” retorted Neate roughly. “You’re counted out, an’ if you wasn’t it ’ud be no good. It’s all over.”

Thurtell rolled his head. The tears started in his eyes. The mortification was too bitter to be endured calmly.

“Get me up,” he whimpered chokingly.

Neate and another man raised him to his feet and he glared around for Ralstone. Jack was standing by Cribb’s side. Cribb was addressing the excited crowd. The spectators were not all on the side of Ralstone. There were yells for another round.

“The set-to’s finished ’cordin’ to rules,” said Cribb. “I’ve got something more to tell you. I want you to give a cheer for Mr. Jack Ralstone. He’s fought fair and he’s a game boxer. But he’s more. He’s got a good heart. He told me if he beat the ‘Swell Yokel’ he’d hand another ten guineas to the fund, and here they are.”

Cribb dropped the coins from his right hand into his left. The applause was deafening. Thurtell’s face went ashen. This was a fresh humiliation. Neate helped him to dress. He was cheered as he was assisted to leave the stage, and was immediately surrounded by a number of his friends, most of whom, half drunk, had had at their hero’s expense as many pints as they could swallow previous to coming into the Fives Court, and knew they would have more when they got - outside. They were an evil-looking lot, spongers all of them.

“You and the other gentleman had better keep your eyes open. Thurtell’s got a ‘string of onions’ (low fellows) who’ll stick at nothing if he pays them. They’ll help him to get rid of his thousand pounds in less than no time. You’d better have a body-guard,” said Cribb.

“Thanks, Tom. I don’t think I want one. What do you say, Walsham?”

“After what I’ve seen of you to-night, Ralstone, I should say not,” said the young nobleman with a glance of admiration and, possibly, envy.

“As you like, sir. I only warn you. I saw one of Thurtell’s pals moving about the mob rather queerly. You can have half a dozen of my friends. They’d be pleased to do you a good turn for thrashing that bully.”

“I won’t trouble them. I’m not going to keep them from the good dinner that’s waiting them.”

So, shaking hands all round, Jack and his friend passed into the narrow passage leading into St. Martin’s Street, and thence into Leicester Square.

The crowd was pouring out of the main entrance. There seemed to be little to justify Spring’s warning, but Jack judged it prudent to cross to the other side of the Square, where there were but few people. As things fell out this was a mistake. The oil lamps, smoky though they were, gave sufficient light to outline the figures of the two Corinthians, so different in dress and bearing from the rabble around, most of which had drifted down from the adjacent “Seven Dials.”

A hoarse shout came from somewhere. Jack could distinguish the words: “There he is! That’s the nob!” A confused tramp of iron-shod and hobnailed boots, and the mob surged towards them, the men yelling, the women screaming.

“Gad! Spring was right!” exclaimed Jack. “You’ll have to use your fists, Walsham. A stinger or two’ll take the fight out of them.”

But he was wrong. By the time he had reached St. Martin’s Lane he was in the midst of a score or so of burly ruffians, the scum of the “Dials,” infuriated by drink, and attacking him in the hopes of getting more. At the rear were fellows shouting as much, and egging them on. The two foremost of his assailants Jack floored with a couple of blows right and left, but others took their place, and in the scrimmage he lost sight of his companion.

Had Jack Ralstone been in an open space with the country beyond, instead of in a street filled with a seething, swaying mob, with nothing behind him but a nest of vile courts and alleys​—​for Garrick Street did not exist then, and between St. Martin’s Lane and King Street, Covent Garden, was a network of slums​—​he could, by taking to his heels have easily escaped, for he excelled as a sprinter. But as it was, his only course was to fight, though against so many he hadn’t a dog’s chance.

Setting his teeth Ralstone planted himself against the wall of the nearest house and coolly fought on as best he could. He was holding his own, never heeding the blows that now and again reached him, and oblivious of the blood that was streaming down his face from a cut in the temple inflicted by a stone, when the pressure of the mob shifted from the front of him to the side. He was compelled perforce to move a pace or two towards the Charing Cross end of St. Martin’s Lane. The pressure from the side increased. Again he had to give way, and suddenly he found himself no longer protected by the house, but opposite the mouth of a narrow alley and forced into the arms of a vile set of wretches streaming from the low gaming houses and taverns of ill-repute, which abounded in this quarter.

Soon he was forced into this alley, buffeted this way and that. He was like a cork in an eddy of froth. Brutality was rampant. Those who had first attacked him no doubt had a definite purpose in so doing, but the rest were out for sport, and to hunt a helpless man was as amusing to them as a dog-fight, a bull-baiting or a “main” in a cockpit.

Amid the shower of blows that rained on him from all sides he still retained consciousness. He fought wildly, mechanically, and the strangest part of all was that, after a time, he felt no pain. He had gone beyond that stage. He might have been a prize-fighter in the last round of a heavy slogging match. Further and further he was drawn and pushed into the vortex of vice and savagery. Then suddenly he had a dim sense of emerging into a fairly wide street and the clatter of horses’ hoofs broke upon his ear. The sound was the signal for the ruffians to disperse. They ran in all directions like frightened rabbits. Mounted soldiers galloped down the street, sweeping the human dregs before them. The frightened watchmen, fearing a riot and knowing they were unable to cope with it, had sent post haste to the Horse Guards, and a squadron had been ordered out.

But Jack Ralstone knew nothing of this, he was lying insensible, his clothes nearly torn off his back, in front of the door of a house in King Street.