Chapter XXIII

East Against West

The “Blue Anchor,” Oyster-shell Alley, Wapping, was a typical waterside tavern, neither better nor worse than any other between Limehouse and Westminster. It was at the corner of the alley. At the end of the latter ran the Thames, reached by a flight of slimy, uneven steps, partly of brick, partly of lumps of stone. A tumble-down. weather-boarded structure, the “Blue Anchor” was so lopsided that it looked as if a vigorous push would send it toppling into the river. A bay window, the frame of which had long ceased acquaintance with paint, projecting from the ground-floor room, would certainly not have required much pushing to separate it from the house, had it not been shored up by two stout beams driven into the shingle below. The “Blue Anchor” would have delighted a modern artist, but he would have thought twice before he sampled its beer or rum.

In the room with the bay-window, amid squalid surroundings. in a leather-covered arm-chair, worn rusty by long usage, sat, or rather lounged, the fine gentleman, Sir Phineas Tenbury. He was supposed to be in Paris; he was in hiding at the “Blue Anchor.” Always vicious-looking, he was now at his worst. The grey shade of dissipation and sleepless nights had crept over his face. His eyes, since the tragic episode in Cranbourne Alley, had in them the restless glance of the hunted man. He had been horribly nervous about Lady Barbara’s pearls, and he had determined to lie low until he was sure Mrs. Matthews had not given him away, and that the loss of the necklace had not been discovered. A fortnight had gone over, nothing had happened to cause him uneasiness, and he was beginning to feel less anxious.

He had not the slightest difficulty in accounting for his seeking refuge at the “Blue Anchor.” He was, he said, being pursued by duns, writs were out against him, and he had no desire to be lodged in a Cursitor Street sponging house. The story was highly credible, and Sam Appleby, the landlord, who knew Sir Phineas well, never thought of questioning it.

Tenbury had another reason for selecting the “Blue Anchor.” It was the house of call of Sally Winch and her son Jerry, and Sally he was employing to watch Ralstone in place of Vicary. Sally had got work in Covent Garden market, and was able to combine pea-shelling with spying. Ralstone, it was pretty certain, would never suspect her. Sir Phineas was now awaiting her first report.

The door opened, and Appleby put his shock head into the room.

“’Ere’s the old ’oman,” said he in a beery voice.

“I’ll see her.”

Sally had brought her son with her, but she left him in the bar. She bobbed cringingly and commenced her story. She had brought news. Mr. Ralstone had left the “Tavistock” and was staying with Tom Spring at the Weymouth Arms.

“How did you find that out?” growled Tenbury.

“It warn’t me, yer ’onour, as diskivered it. It war Jerry. He’ll tell ’ee all about it, sir. He’s outside now.”

“Bring him in.”

Her offspring slouched in, touching his forelock. He was a different Jerry from the drunken bruiser who had gone down under Jack Ralstone’s fist on the common on the Bristol and Bath Road. He had never forgotten the humiliation of his defeat, he the “milling” champion of many a boxing-booth fight, by an amateur! He was burning to reinstate his reputation, for somehow the story had got wind. He had turned over a new leaf. He had reduced his potations of “heavy wet” and had put himself under the care of a trainer of men and horses. His constant outdoor life and exercise, running and riding, had made him as hard as nails. His face was no longer red and bloated, but lean and bronzed. He had lost a stone in weight and had now the litheness of body and the firmness of muscular development of the born fighter.

“What d’ye think, Sir Phineas?” he began excitedly. “That theer C’rinthian as you put t’old mother to foller is a goin’ in for a ‘ring’ match. I want ter take ’im on. ’Im an’ me’s got a score ter settle, as you know. You’ve only got to plank down twenty-five shiners an’ I’ll ’arf kill my fine genelman.”

Jerry had adorned his story with a few oaths which may be omitted, and finished by spitting on both palms and clenching his fists.

Tenbury’s dull eyes lightened. He saw the change in the burly ruffian and noted the brawny neck and shoulders. Jerry was likely to prove a formidable antagonist. It would be something towards his revenge if his rival were crippled​—​the loss of an eye​—​the bridge of his nose smashed​—​his jaw broken​—​anything so long as his good looks were permanently ruined.

“Are you sure?” he asked eagerly.

“Sartin’ sure. I was a-sparrin’ at ‘The Feathers,’ Ratcliff ’Ighway, t’other night; blest if I didn’t see Spring among the landlord’s friends a-quizzin’ me. The C’rinthian’s a-comin’ out as Bob ’Umphries, but it’s Ralstone all the same. Spring’s a-lookin’ out fur a man to meet ’im, an’ he wanted to see if I was good enough. Good enough? Oh, lor!”

And Jerry spat once more, this time on the ground.

“If I find the money, will the match come off?” asked Tenbury, biting his nails.

“I’ll take my oath it will.”

“Come here to-morrow. I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile your mother must hang about the Weymouth Arms. And you might keep your eyes open too. I want every step of Ralstone’s dogged. D’ye understand?”

Jerry nodded, his mother cackled, and the precious pair departed with the few shillings Sir Phineas found for them. Then he had a consultation with Sam Appleby. The purport was the disposal of some jewellery which Sir Phineas had determined upon selling, so as to get free of his pressing liabilities and enable him to come out into the open. Appleby had heard that a Dutch Jew had come over from Antwerp on business, and could be seen at a house in the Minories. The Jew was a dealer in precious stones.

“Is he good for £5,000?”

“Any amount, so I’ve heard tell. Them Jews hang together, an’ what one ain’t got another makes up. They’re always on fur a deal. I’ll get the address some time this afternoon.”

Appleby was as good as his word. That evening Sir Phineas interviewed a grey-bearded man in a long gabardine, and drove a hard bargain for the pearls. He wanted £5000; Solomon Sluys would only give £4,000. They compromised for £4,250. The next day Jerry and his trainer were at the “Blue Anchor,” the £25 was handed over and deposited, as was duly notified in the next issue of Bell’s Life.

There was to be no delay in bringing matters to an issue. Both men were in good fettle and were eager for the fight. From the East End point of view, Spring’s “novice” hadn’t the ghost of a chance against Jerry Winch, who had been boxing week in and week out six months of the year ever since he was out of his teens. True, he had mostly had ambitious “duffers” to deal with on the race-courses and at fairs where his mother’s boxing booth was pitched, but the milling, such as it was, kept him in condition.

Apart from the confidence they had in their man, Winch’s supporters had prided themselves on the fact that it was the East against the West, for it had oozed out that “Bob Humphries” was a swell and a Corinthian to boot. In a way this feeling suited Jack Ralstone’s book, as it enabled him to accept the bets which the backers of Winch were quite ready to make. If he won, Jack saw his way to the £500 he wanted. But it was going to be a near thing. Spring warned him that his opponent was likely to prove a tough customer.

The place for the fight was kept as much of a secret as was possible, but it was known to a few that the historic battle ground of Moulsey Hurst had been chosen. For the moment the day was left open. Meanwhile Ralstone passed his time between Spring’s house and lodgings he had taken at Hampstead. Here, amid beautiful and wild surroundings, he did his open-air training, winding up the day with a walk to Waterloo Bridge and back on the off-chance of meeting Nyra.

Happy meetings they were when fortune favoured them. By mutual yet tacit agreement both avoided talking of anything outside their new-found love, and this subject seemed inexhaustible. Nyra, in some way which Ralstone never sought to know, had found means to put off Quamina, for the black no longer accompanied her.

A fortnight passed quickly, and then came a surprise. Jack heard from Lord Walsham that Sir Phineas Tenbury had returned from Paris and was again to be seen in his old haunts. Two days after Walsham found his way to Flask Walk, where Ralstone had his rooms, with an important piece of news.

Walsham threw a slip of paper on the table.

“Tenbury’s cheque for £4,000,” said he. “The fellow seems to have squeezed Houston to some purpose. Captain Charteris brought it to me this morning. I rather fancy it was due to Charteris’s scruples rather than because Tenbury thought he ought to pay you, that he scraped the money together. Anyhow, you’re in funds. You don’t seem overjoyed.”

And indeed Ralstone’s face was unusually grave.

“It’s come too late. Three weeks ago I might have welcomed it. 1 should have been saved my venture into the prize ring. I can’t back out now. If I suggested such a thing it would be said I was showing the white feather.”

“But no one knows you’re ‘Bob Humphries.’”

“Spring does. I can’t sell him. He’d never look at me again. You don’t know the trouble he’s taken to put me up to every move. Besides, I’ve been thinking over the matter, and I’ve decided that I won’t be indebted to Tenbury for being able to bring off the plan I’ve got in my mind. I’ll make the money I want by my own efforts or not at all. What d’you say?”

“Well, I know nothing about it, but I dare say you’re right.”

“I feel I am. I’ve never told you the facts about the girl I’m fighting for. Tenbury was villain enough to employ a gang of ruffians to carry her off one night as she was coming from Vauxhall Gardens, where she had been singing​—​perhaps you may have heard Nyra?”

“The deuce! So it’s Nyra, the charming singer the town went mad over some months ago, is it? Heaps of men have been wondering what has become of her. By Jupiter, Ralstone, you’re in luck. But Sir Phineas​—​so he got hold of her, did he?”

“He tried to, but failed. The blackguards in his pay​—​a beast of an old woman and her son were the ringleaders; I gave the scoundrel a thrashing and I’d like to give him another​—​took her to Somersetshire, and I rescued her. I rode with her to Bath; she ran away for reasons which I needn’t go into; we met again in London, and now she’s mine. I’ve reason to believe Tenbury’s moving heaven and earth to find her, but he won’t. I want to take her away after I’ve settled with the fellow. That’s why I won’t touch a farthing of his money.”

“What am I to do with his cheque, then?”

“Haven’t made up my mind. Keep it in your possession for the present.”

Within another week the day for the fight was fixed, and it was soon buzzed about that it was to come off at Moulsey Hurst.

The Thames never looked more inviting for a swim, a row, or a sail, than on this August morning; but the crowds, both of the washed and unwashed, streaming over Hampton Court Bridge, besieging the ferry boats at Hampton, and blocking up the roads with drags, curricles, tandems, gigs, and every kind of vehicle that could be pressed into service, had no thoughts of these harmless pleasures. Nor did they care for the beauty of the pastoral surroundings or the bright sunshine, save that the latter meant bodily comfort. Their minds were fixed on seeing two men batter each other about. Nor did they care a straw for the nobility of the manly art of self-defence. They were out to see blood and bruises, and to some tastes the more of both the better.

Jack Ralstone had put up the night before with his mentor, Spring at Walton; thence it was an easy ride to Moulsey Hurst, immediately opposite Hampton village. The authorities had apparently “winked the other eye,” and there was no thought of difficulties from the magistrates. A huge multitude had assembled round the ropes when a close carriage brought “Bob Humphries” to a convenient spot cleared in readiness by the ex-P.R. bodyguard, and expert eyes eagerly scrutinised the representative of the “Corinthians,” for it was now known to every one that Tom Spring’s “novice” belonged to the world of swelldom. On the whole the verdict was satisfactory, though there were some judges who thought that the young “nob,” with his white skin, tanned though his face was by sun and wind, and finely-drawn, sharply-defined muscular development, would never stand the hammering which the brawny champion of the East End had in readiness.

The East Enders had mustered in great force, and a thousand and more hoarse, raucous voices hailed their hero when he leaped over the ropes and flung his “castor” into the ring. “Gentleman” Jackson had the arrangements in his hands, and at the given moment both men were at their corners. When Jack glanced across the enclosure, curious to see what kind of man he had to meet, the sun was shining full upon Jerry Winch’s face, and Ralstone gave a start of recognition. He turned at once to Spring.

“Tom,” said he in a low voice, “I’ve already fought that fellow.”

“You have, sir?” exclaimed the surprised Spring.

“Yes. I’ll tell you something about it after the fight. All I can say now is that I beat him and I mean to do it again.”

“You’ve your work cut out. He’ll stand any amount of your punches. Mind he doesn’t get one of his in unawares. He can hit. Remember what I told you. Don’t force the fighting. Tire him and watch your chance.”

Ralstone nodded. The knowledge that he was pitted against the ruffian who had done Tenbury’s dirty work gave him a sense of joy. He thought of Nyra, and he was burning to avenge her wrongs. At the same time he resolved that this feeling should not affect his judgment. He saw he would have to be cooler and more guarded than ever.

It was the reverse with Jerry Winch. His animalism showed itself, in the impudent grin, the protruding lower jaw, and the small, tigerish eyes deep in their sockets. He was bursting to pound his antagonist and gratify his love of brutality, and a curious sound, like the snarl of a savage dog, issued from his lips as at the appointed signal he faced the tall, lithe figure who advanced towards him.

The spectators held their breath. Then something like a sigh seemed to pass over the vast multitude. It was a murmur of astonishment. The two combatants had not observed the usual etiquette. Neither had offered to shake hands. Winch’s backers thought the omission was due to the Corinthian’s “stuck-uppishness.” Ralstone’s supporters put it down to Winch’s ignorance and boorishness. Then, when the astonishment passed away, a jeering “yah” burst from the outraged East Enders. As a matter of fact, the two men knew they were out for the grim reality of fighting, and neither was in the mood for ceremony and a pretence that there was no ill-feeling.

The first round gave no hint of what was to follow. Winch’s tactics, it was clear, were of the rushing order. He hardly gave Ralstone time to pose in the “correct” attitude before he was upon him like a wild cat, sending in blow after blow, which, had they been direct instead of being slightly curved, might have done his opponent some damage. He wanted to get inside Jack’s guard by a side attack, which would make the accepted rules go for naught, but he failed. Ralstone did not escape entirely, but there was nothing very serious. He did not attempt to retreat, indeed the onslaught was too sudden, and he closed instead, relying upon his skill as a wrestler.

Wrestling, it so happened, was not one of Winch’s strong points. He was a Londoner born and bred, and belonged to a hybrid class known as “Stepney” gipsies​—​nomads who pose as gipsies when it suits them, but have not the least trace of the true Romany blood in them. He struggled to free himself from Ralstone’s grip, and for a time it was a hard tussle, Winch making up for his want of knowledge by his enormous strength. But science and practice won the day. Suddenly he was lifted up, his body whirled in the air, and he came down a huddled heap, breathless and quivering. He was at once taken to his corner, and was soon ready once more. He was not much hurt, but considerably shaken.

When the second round started it could be seen that he was mad with rage. He tried the rushing game, but Jack was ready, and stepped back in time to avoid his savage thrusts. Now and again Ralstone got in a jabbing stroke, and though he found his mark on Winch’s face, the fellow’s head was so hard he could make little impression. Jerry’s nose and mouth were bleeding, but he took no heed and pressed on, Ralstone all the time retreating. This kind of fighting was not what Jerry had been used to in his boxing-booth encounters, and, after the shaking up of the first round, he began to lose his wind. His fury was so intense that he fought quite wildly, and Jack planted a terrific blow on the “mark” and down he went again, doubled up with pain. The applause was deafening as Ralstone walked to his corner without a scratch.

“That’s the game,” said Spring, while he was attending to his man. “Don’t let him come to close quarters.”

In the third round Ralstone’s straight blows fell with unerring certainty. Jerry looked like a fiend, and, conscious of his ability to take any amount of punishment so far as his bullet head and muscular chest were concerned, hardly tried to defend himself. He paid the penalty at the end of the fourth round. He attempted to get within Jack’s guard, and made a bull-like rush at a moment when he was short of breath, missed, and received a direct upper-cut which caught him on the chin and sent him flying like a ninepin. But he was not to be denied. He came up to time and, stung by the reproaches of his supporters, could hardly contain himself. One blow of his got home, and Ralstone staggered under it and went down on one knee. Jerry did not pursue his advantage. He had his adversary at his mercy, but his eyes were half closed; his brain was paralysed, partly because it was naturally slow, and partly because what there was of it was filled by his ungovernable hatred, and he did not at once realise his advantage. The next instant Ralstone was on both feet and landed his man a stupendous crash between the eyes, cutting his knuckles against Jerry’s cheek-bones, but effectually blinding him. When Winch’s backers saw his fists whirling aimlessly, they yelled out volleys of execrations. But the round had to be finished, and Jack closed and threw him.

Jerry’s seconds saw there was no chance for their man. He came to before he was counted out, struggled to his feet, and insisted upon going on. He was livid with mortification, and wouldn’t listen to their remonstrances. He had his way, and staggered with assistance to the centre of the ring. He looked a pitiable object, swaying to and fro and vainly endeavouring to see his antagonist. Jack walked up to him, heard his gasping oaths, and gently pushed him. Down he went.

The fight was over. Jerry Winch was carried to his corner insensible, and a great shout rose from the Corinthians and their friends. Jack, save a cut on his cheek, had come through with very slight injuries. He was surrounded and overwhelmed with congratulations.

“You’d be as good as Gentleman Jackson or Mr. Gully,” said Spring, “if you cared.”

“No. I’ve had enough. I’ve done more than I expected. I’ve thrashed an enemy,” returned Jack with a smile.

His friends would have given him a dinner, but he would have none of it. He had important business that night, he said. And this was true. He had to meet Nyra.

He was so excited he did not see Sir Phineas. The baronet was whispering to a witch-like old woman who was making her way towards the defeated Jerry. The old hag was Sally Winch.