The Strand Magazine, July 1923
IT becomes increasingly difficult, I have found, as time goes by, to recall the exact circumstances in which one first became acquainted with this man or that; for as a general thing I lay no claim to the possession of one of those hair-trigger memories which come from subscribing to the correspondence courses advertised in the magazines. If I encountered Mr. Addison Simms of Seattle after a separation of years I should probably spoil his whole day by cutting him dead. Certainly I should not ask him how he came out on that granary deal. And yet I can state without doubt or hesitation that the individual afterwards known as Battling Billson entered my life at half-past four on the afternoon of Saturday, September the tenth, two days after my twenty-seventh birthday. For there was that about my first sight of him which has caused the event to remain photographically lined on the tablets of my mind when a yesterday has faded from its page. Not only was our meeting dramatic and even startling, but it had in it something of the quality of the last straw, the final sling or arrow of outrageous Fortune. It seemed to put the lid on the sadness of life.
Everything had been going steadily wrong with me for more than a week. I had been away, paying a duty visit to uncongenial relatives in the country, and it had rained and rained and rained. There had been family prayers before breakfast and bezique after dinner. On the journey back to London my carriage had been full of babies, the train had stopped everywhere, and I had had nothing to eat but a bag of buns. And when finally I let myself into my lodgings in Ebury Street and sought the soothing haven of my sitting-room, the first thing I saw on opening the door was this enormous red-headed man lying on the sofa.
He made no move as I came in, for he was asleep; and I can best convey the instantaneous impression I got of his formidable physique by saying that I had no desire to wake him. The sofa was a small one, and he overflowed it in every direction. He had a broken nose, and his jaw was the jaw of a Wild West motion-picture star registering Determination. One hand was under his head; the other, hanging down to the floor, looked like a strayed ham congealed into stone. What he was doing in my sitting-room I did not know; but, passionately as I wished to know, I preferred not to seek first-hand information. There was something about him that seemed to suggest that he might be one of those men who are rather cross when they first wake up. I crept out and stole softly downstairs to make inquiries of Bowles, my landlord.
“Sir?” said Bowles, in his fruity ex-butler way, popping up from the depths accompanied by a rich smell of finnan haddie.
“There’s someone in my room,” I whispered.
“That would be Mr. Ukridge, sir.”
“It wouldn’t be anything of the kind,” I replied, with asperity. I seldom had the courage to contradict Bowles, but this statement was so wildly inaccurate that I could not let it pass. “It’s a huge red-headed man.”
“Mr. Ukridge’s friend, sir. He joined Mr. Ukridge here yesterday.”
“How do you mean, joined Mr. Ukridge here yesterday?”
“Mr. Ukridge came to occupy your rooms in your absence, sir, on the night after your departure. I assumed that he had your approval. He said, if I remember correctly, that ‘it would be all right.’ ”
For some reason or other which I had never been able to explain, Bowles’s attitude towards Ukridge from their first meeting had been that of an indulgent father towards a favourite son. He gave the impression now of congratulating me on having such a friend to rally round and sneak into my rooms when I went away.
“Would there be anything further, sir?” inquired Bowles, with a wistful half-glance over his shoulder. He seemed reluctant to tear himself away for long from the finnan haddie.
“No,” I said. “Er—no. When do you expect Mr. Ukridge back?”
“Mr. Ukridge informed me that he would return for dinner, sir. Unless he has altered his plans, he is now at a matinée performance at the Gaiety Theatre.”
THE audience was just beginning to leave when I reached the Gaiety. I waited in the Strand, and presently was rewarded by the sight of a yellow mackintosh working its way through the crowd.
“Hullo, laddie!” said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. “When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it to-morrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.” He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians, and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. “Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum tum tum,” he concluded. “And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter. What sort of a time have you had?”
“Never mind what sort of a time I’ve had. Who’s the fellow you’ve dumped down in my rooms?”
“Good Lord! Surely even you wouldn’t inflict more than one on me?”
Ukridge looked at me a little pained.
“I don’t like this tone,” he said, leading me down the steps of the Coal Hole. “Upon my Sam, your manner wounds me, old horse. I little thought that you would object to your best friend laying his head on your pillow.”
“I don’t mind your head. At least I do, but I suppose I’ve got to put up with it. But when it comes to your taking in lodgers——”
“Order two tawny ports, laddie,” said Ukridge, “and I’ll explain all about that. I had an idea all along that you would want to know. It’s like this,” he proceeded, when the tawny ports had arrived. “That bloke’s going to make my everlasting fortune.”
“Well, can’t he do it somewhere else except in my sitting-room?”
“You know me, old horse,” said Ukridge, sipping luxuriously. “Keen, alert, far-sighted. Brain never still. Always getting ideas—bing—like a flash. The other day I was in a pub down Chelsea way having a bit of bread and cheese, and a fellow came in smothered with jewels. Smothered, I give you my word. Rings on his fingers and a tie-pin you could have lit your cigar at. I made inquiries and found that he was Tod Bingham’s manager.”
“Who’s Tod Bingham?”
“My dear old son, you must have heard of Tod Bingham. The new middle-weight champion. Beat Alf Palmer for the belt a couple of weeks ago. And this bloke, as opulent-looking a bloke as ever I saw, was his manager. I suppose he gets about fifty per cent. of everything Tod makes, and you know the sort of purses they give for big fights nowadays. And then there’s music-hall tours and the movies and all that. Well, I see no reason why, putting the thing at the lowest figures, I shouldn’t scoop in thousands. I got the idea two seconds after they told me who this fellow was. And what made the thing seem almost as if it was meant to be was the coincidence that I should have heard only that morning that the Hyacinth was in.”
THE man seemed to me to be rambling. In my reduced and afflicted state his cryptic method of narrative irritated me.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “What’s the Hyacinth? In where?”
“Pull yourself together, old horse,” said Ukridge, with the air of one endeavouring to be patient with a half-witted child. “You remember the Hyacinth, the tramp steamer I took that trip on a couple of years ago. Many’s the time I’ve told you all about the Hyacinth. She docked in the Port of London the night before I met this opulent bloke, and I had been meaning to go down next day and have a chat with the lads. The fellow you found in your rooms is one of the trimmers. As decent a bird as ever you met. Not much conversation, but a heart of gold. And it came across me like a thunderbolt the moment they told me who the jewelled cove was that, if I could only induce this man Billson to take up scrapping seriously, with me as his manager, my fortune was made. Billson is the man who invented fighting.”
“He looks it.”
“Splendid chap—you’ll like him.”
“I bet I shall. I made up my mind to like him the moment I saw him.”
“Never picks a quarrel, you understand—in fact, used to need the deuce of a lot of provocation before he would give of his best; but once he started—golly! I’ve seen that man clean out a bar at Marseilles in a way that fascinated you. A bar filled to overflowing with A.B.’s and firemen, mind you, and all capable of felling oxen with a blow. Six of them there were, and they kept swatting Billson with all the vim and heartiness at their disposal, but he just let them bounce off, and went on with the business in hand. The man’s a champion, laddie, nothing less. You couldn’t hurt him with a hatchet, and every time he hits anyone all the undertakers in the place jump up and make bids for the body. And the amazing bit of luck is that he was looking for a job ashore. It appears he’s fallen in love with one of the barmaids at the Crown in Kennington. Not,” said Ukridge, so that all misapprehension should be avoided, “the one with the squint. The other one. Flossie. The girl with yellow hair.”
“I don’t know the barmaids at the Crown in Kennington,” I said.
“Nice girls,” said Ukridge, paternally. “So it was all right, you see. Our interests were identical. Good old Billson isn’t what you’d call a very intelligent chap, but I managed to make him understand after an hour or so, and we drew up the contract. I’m to get fifty per cent. of everything in consideration of managing him, fixing up fights, and looking after him generally.”
“And looking after him includes tucking him up on my sofa and singing him to sleep?”
Again that pained look came into Ukridge’s face. He gazed at me as if I had disappointed him.
“You keep harping on that, laddie, and it isn’t the right spirit. Anyone would think that we had polluted your damned room.”
“Well, you must admit that having this coming champion of yours in the home is going to make things a bit crowded.”
“Don’t worry about that, my dear old man,” said Ukridge, reassuringly. “We move to the White Hart at Barnes to-morrow, to start training. I’ve got Billson an engagement in one of the preliminaries down at Wonderland two weeks from to-night.”
“No; really?” I said, impressed by this enterprise. “How did you manage it?”
“I just took him along and showed him to the management. They jumped at him. You see, the old boy’s appearance rather speaks for itself. Thank goodness, all this happened just when I had a few quid tucked away. By the greatest good luck I ran into George Tupper at the very moment when he had had word that they were going to make him an under-secretary or something—I can’t remember the details, but it’s something they give these Foreign Office blokes when they show a bit of class—and Tuppy parted with a tenner without a murmur. Seemed sort of dazed. I believe now I could have had twenty if I’d had the presence of mind to ask for it. Still,” said Ukridge, with a manly resignation which did him credit, “it can’t be helped now, and ten will see me through. The only thing that’s worrying me at the moment is what to call Billson.”
“Yes, I should be careful what I called a man like that.”
“I mean, what name is he to fight under?”
“Why not his own?”
“His parents, confound them,” said Ukridge, moodily, “christened him Wilberforce. I ask you, can you see the crowd at Wonderland having Wilberforce Billson introduced to them?”
“Willie Billson,” I suggested. “Rather snappy.”
Ukridge considered the proposal seriously, with knit brows, as becomes a manager.
“Too frivolous,” he decided at length. “Might be all right for a bantam, but—no, I don’t like it. I was thinking of something like Hurricane Hicks or Rock-Crusher Riggs.”
“Don’t do it,” I urged, “or you’ll kill his career right from the start. You never find a real champion with one of these fancy names. Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Johnson, James J. Corbett, James J. Jeffries——”
“James J. Billson?”
“You don’t think,” said Ukridge, almost with timidity, “that Wildcat Wix might do?”
“No fighter with an adjective in front of his name ever boxed in anything except a three-round preliminary.”
“How about Battling Billson?”
I patted him on the shoulder.
“Go no farther,” I said. “The thing is settled. Battling Billson is the name.”
“Laddie,” said Ukridge in a hushed voice, reaching across the table and grasping my hand, “this is genius. Sheer genius. Order another couple of tawny ports, old man.”
I did so, and we drank deep to the Battler’s success.
MY formal introduction to my godchild took place on our return to Ebury Street, and—great as had been my respect for the man before—it left me with a heightened appreciation of the potentialities for triumph awaiting him in his selected profession. He was awake by this time and moving ponderously about the sitting-room, and he looked even more impressive standing than he had appeared when lying down. At our first meeting, moreover, his eyes had been closed in sleep; they were now open, green in colour, and of a peculiarly metallic glint which caused them, as we shook hands, to seem to be exploring my person for good spots to hit. What was probably intended to be the smile that wins appeared to me a grim and sardonic twist of the lip. Take him for all in all, I had never met a man so calculated to convert the most truculent swashbuckler to pacifism at a glance; and when I recalled Ukridge’s story of the little unpleasantness at Marseilles and realized that a mere handful of half-a-dozen able-bodied seamen had had the temerity to engage this fellow in personal conflict, it gave me a thrill of patriotic pride. There must be good stuff in the British Merchant Marine, I felt. Hearts of oak.
Dinner, which followed the introduction, revealed the Battler rather as a capable trencherman than as a sparkling conversationalist. His long reach enabled him to grab salt, potatoes, pepper, and other necessaries without the necessity of asking for them; and on other topics he seemed to possess no views which he deemed worthy of exploitation. A strong, silent man.
That there was a softer side to his character was, however, made clear to me when, after smoking one of my cigars and talking for a while of this and that, Ukridge went out on one of those mysterious errands of his which were always summoning him at all hours and left my guest and myself alone together. After a bare half-hour’s silence, broken only by the soothing gurgle of his pipe, the coming champion cocked an intimidating eye at me and spoke.
“You ever been in love, mister?”
I was thrilled and flattered. Something in my appearance, I told myself, some nebulous something that showed me a man of sentiment and sympathy, had appealed to this man, and he was about to pour out his heart in intimate confession. I said yes, I had been in love many times. I went on to speak of love as a noble emotion of which no man need be ashamed. I spoke at length and with fervour.
“R!” said Battling Billson.
Then, as if aware that he had been chattering in an undignified manner to a comparative stranger, he withdrew into the silence again and did not emerge till it was time to go to bed, when he said “Good night, mister,” and disappeared. It was disappointing. Significant, perhaps, the conversation had been, but I had been rather hoping for something which could have been built up into a human document, entitled “The Soul of the Abysmal Brute,” and sold to some editor for that real money which was always so badly needed in the home.
UKRIDGE and his protégé left next morning for Barnes, and, as that riverside resort was somewhat off my beat, I saw no more of the Battler until the fateful night at Wonderland. From time to time Ukridge would drop in at my rooms to purloin cigars and socks, and on these occasions he always spoke with the greatest confidence of his man’s prospects. At first, it seemed, there had been a little difficulty owing to the other’s rooted idea that plug tobacco was an indispensable adjunct to training: but towards the end of the first week the arguments of wisdom had prevailed and he had consented to abandon smoking until after his début. By this concession the issue seemed to Ukridge to have been sealed as a certainty, and he was in sunny mood as he borrowed the money from me to pay our fares to the Underground station at which the pilgrim alights who wishes to visit that Mecca of East-end boxing, Wonderland.
The Battler had preceded us, and when we arrived was in the dressing-room, stripped to a breath-taking semi-nudity. I had not supposed that it was possible for a man to be larger than was Mr. Billson when arrayed for the street, but in trunks and boxing shoes he looked like his big brother. Muscles resembling the hawsers of an Atlantic liner coiled down his arms and rippled along his massive shoulders. He seemed to dwarf altogether the by no means flimsy athlete who passed out of the room as we came in.
“That’s the bloke,” announced Mr. Billson, jerking his red head after this person.
We understood him to imply that the other was his opponent, and the spirit of confidence which had animated us waxed considerably. Where six of the pick of the Merchant Marine had failed, this stripling could scarcely hope to succeed.
“I been talkin’ to ’im,” said Battling Billson.
I took this unwonted garrulity to be due to a slight nervousness natural at such a moment.
“ ’E’s ’ad a lot of trouble, that bloke,” said the Battler.
The obvious reply was that he was now going to have a lot more, but before either of us could make it a hoarse voice announced that Squiffy and the Toff had completed their three-round bout and that the stage now waited for our nominee. We hurried to our seats. The necessity of taking a look at our man in his dressing-room had deprived us of the pleasure of witnessing the passage of arms between Squiffy and the Toff, but I gathered that it must have been lively and full of entertainment, for the audience seemed in excellent humour. All those who were not too busy eating jellied eels were babbling happily or whistling between their fingers to friends in distant parts of the hall. As Mr. Billson climbed into the ring in all the glory of his red hair and jumping muscles, the babble rose to a roar. It was plain that Wonderland had stamped our Battler with its approval on sight.
The audiences which support Wonderland are not disdainful of science. Neat footwork wins their commendation, and a skilful ducking of the head is greeted with knowing applause. But what they esteem most highly is the punch. And one sight of Battling Billson seemed to tell them that here was the Punch personified. They sent the fighters off to a howl of ecstasy, and settled back in their seats to enjoy the pure pleasure of seeing two of their fellow-men hitting each other very hard and often.
The howl died away.
I looked at Ukridge with concern. Was this the hero of Marseilles, the man who cleaned out bar-rooms and on whom undertakers fawned? Diffident was the only word to describe our Battler’s behaviour in that opening round. He pawed lightly at his antagonist. He embraced him like a brother. He shuffled about the ring, innocuous.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked.
“He always starts slow,” said Ukridge, but his concern was manifest. He fumbled nervously at the buttons of his mackintosh. The referee was warning Battling Billson. He was speaking to him like a disappointed father. In the cheaper and baser parts of the house enraged citizens were whistling “Comrades.” Everywhere a chill had fallen on the house. That first fine fresh enthusiasm had died away, and the sounding of the gong for the end of the round was greeted with censorious cat-calls. As Mr. Billson lurched back to his corner, frank unfriendliness was displayed on all sides.
WITH the opening of the second round considerably more spirit was introduced into the affair. The same strange torpidity still held our Battler in its grip, but his opponent was another man. During round one he had seemed a little nervous and apprehensive. He had behaved as if he considered it prudent not to stir Mr. Billson. But now this distaste for direct action had left him. There was jauntiness in his demeanour as he moved to the centre of the ring; and, having reached it, he uncoiled a long left and smote Mr. Billson forcefully on the nose. Twice he smote him, and twice Mr. Billson blinked like one who has had bad news from home. The man who had had a lot of trouble leaned sideways and brought his right fist squarely against the Battler’s ear.
All was forgotten and forgiven. A moment before the audience had been solidly anti-Billson. Now they were as unanimously pro. For these blows, while they appeared to have affected him not at all physically, seemed to have awakened Mr. Billson’s better feelings as if somebody had turned on a tap. They had aroused in Mr. Billson’s soul that zest for combat which had been so sadly to seek in round one. For an instant after the receipt of that buffet on the ear the Battler stood motionless on his flat feet, apparently in deep thought. Then, with the air of one who has suddenly remembered an important appointment, he plunged forward. Like an animated windmill he cast himself upon the bloke of troubles. He knocked him here, he bounced him there. He committed mayhem upon his person. He did everything to him that a man can do who is hampered with boxing-gloves, until presently the troubled one was leaning heavily against the ropes, his head hanging dazedly, his whole attitude that of a man who would just as soon let the matter drop. It only remained for the Battler to drive home the final punch, and a hundred enthusiasts, rising to their feet, were pointing out to him desirable locations for it.
But once more that strange diffidence had descended upon our representative. While every other man in the building seemed to know the correct procedure and was sketching it out in nervous English, Mr. Billson appeared the victim of doubt. He looked uncertainly at his opponent and inquiringly at the referee.
The referee, obviously a man of blunted sensibilities, was unresponsive. Do It Now was plainly his slogan. He was a business man, and he wanted his patrons to get good value for their money. He was urging Mr. Billson to make a thorough job of it. And finally Mr. Billson approached his man and drew back his right arm. Having done this, he looked over his shoulder once more at the referee.
It was a fatal blunder. The man who had had a lot of trouble may have been in poor shape, but, like most of his profession, he retained, despite his recent misadventures, a reserve store of energy. Even as Mr. Billson turned his head, he reached down to the floor with his gloved right hand, then, with a final effort, brought it up in a majestic sweep against the angle of the other’s jaw. And then, as the fickle audience, with swift change of sympathy, cheered him on, he buried his left in Mr. Billson’s stomach on the exact spot where the well-dressed man wears the third button of his waistcoat.
Of all human experiences this of being smitten in this precise locality is the least agreeable. Battling Billson drooped like a stricken flower, settled slowly down, and spread himself out. He lay peacefully on his back with outstretched arms like a man floating in smooth water. His day’s work was done.
A wailing cry rose above the din of excited patrons of sport endeavouring to explain to their neighbours how it had all happened. It was the voice of Ukridge mourning over his dead.
AT half-past eleven that night, as I was preparing for bed, a drooping figure entered my room. I mixed a silent, sympathetic Scotch and soda, and for awhile no word was spoken.
“How is the poor fellow?” I asked at length.
“He’s all right,” said Ukridge, listlessly. “I left him eating fish and chips at a coffee-stall.”
“Bad luck his getting pipped on the post like that.”
“Bad luck!” boomed Ukridge, throwing off his lethargy with a vigour that spoke of mental anguish. “What do you mean, bad luck? It was just dam’ bone-headedness. Upon my Sam, it’s a little hard. I invest vast sums in this man, I support him in luxury for two weeks, asking nothing of him in return except to sail in and knock somebody’s head off, which he could have done in two minutes if he had liked, and he lets me down purely and simply because the other fellow told him that he had been up all night looking after his wife, who had burned her hand at the jam factory. Infernal sentimentalism!”
“Does him credit,” I argued.
“Kind hearts,” I urged, “are more than coronets.”
“Who the devil wants a pugilist to have a kind heart? What’s the use of this man Billson being able to knock out an elephant if he’s afflicted with this damned maudlin mushiness? Who ever heard of a mushy pugilist? It’s the wrong spirit. It doesn’t make for success.”
“It’s a handicap, of course,” I admitted.
“What guarantee have I,” demanded Ukridge, “that if I go to enormous trouble and expense getting him another match, he won’t turn aside and brush away a silent tear in the first round because he’s heard that the blighter’s wife has got an in-growing toenail?”
“You could match him only against bachelors.”
“Yes, and the first bachelor he met would draw him into a corner and tell him his aunt was down with whooping-cough, and the chump would heave a sigh and stick his chin out to be walloped. A fellow’s got no business to have red hair if he isn’t going to live up to it. And yet,” said Ukridge, wistfully, “I’ve seen that man—it was in a dance-hall at Naples—I’ve seen him take on at least eleven Italians simultaneously. But then, one of them had stuck a knife about three inches into his leg. He seems to need something like that to give him ambition.”
“I don’t see how you are going to arrange to have him knifed just before each fight.”
“No,” said Ukridge, mournfully.
“What are you going to do about his future? Have you any plans?”
“Nothing definite. My aunt was looking for a companion to attend to her correspondence and take care of the canary last time I saw her. I might try to get the job for him.”
And with a horrid, mirthless laugh Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge borrowed five shillings and passed out into the night.
I DID not see Ukridge for the next few days, but I had news of him from our mutual friend George Tupper, whom I met prancing in uplifted mood down Whitehall.
“I say,” said George Tupper without preamble, and with a sort of dazed fervour, “they’ve given me an under-secretaryship.”
I pressed his hand. I would have slapped him on the back, but one does not slap the backs of eminent Foreign Office officials in Whitehall in broad daylight, even if one has been at school with them.
“Congratulations,” I said. “There is no one whom I would more gladly see under-secretarying. I heard rumours of this from Ukridge.”
“Oh, yes, I remember I told him it might be coming off. Good old Ukridge! I met him just now and told him the news, and he was delighted.”
“How much did he touch you for?”
“Eh? Oh, only five pounds. Till Saturday. He expects to have a lot of money by then.”
“Did you ever know the time when Ukridge didn’t expect to have a lot of money?”
“I want you and Ukridge to come and have a bit of dinner with me to celebrate. How would Wednesday suit you?”
“Seven-thirty at the Regent Grill, then. Will you tell Ukridge?”
“I don’t know where he’s got to. I haven’t seen him for nearly a week. Did he tell you where he was?”
“Out at some place at Barnes. What was the name of it?”
“The White Hart?”
“Tell me,” I said, “how did he seem? Cheerful?”
“The last time I saw him he was thinking of giving up the struggle. He had had reverses.”
I PROCEEDED to the White Hart immediately after lunch. The fact that Ukridge was still at that hostelry and had regained his usual sunny outlook on life seemed to point to the fact that the clouds enveloping the future of Mr. Billson had cleared away, and that the latter’s hat was still in the ring. That this was so was made clear to me directly I arrived. Inquiring for my old friend, I was directed to an upper room, from which, as I approached, there came a peculiar thudding noise. It was caused, as I perceived on opening the door, by Mr. Billson. Clad in flannel trousers and a sweater, he was earnestly pounding a large leather object suspended from a wooden platform. His manager, seated on a soap-box in a corner, regarded him the while with affectionate proprietorship.
“Hullo, old horse!” said Ukridge, rising as I entered. “Glad to see you.”
The din of Mr. Billson’s bag-punching, from which my arrival had not caused him to desist, was such as to render conversation difficult. We moved to the quieter retreat of the bar downstairs, where I informed Ukridge of the under-secretary’s invitation.
“I’ll be there,” said Ukridge. “There’s one thing about good old Billson, you can trust him not to break training if you take your eye off him. And, of course, he realizes that this is a big thing. It’ll be the making of him.”
“Your aunt is considering engaging him, then?”
“My aunt? What on earth are you talking about? Collect yourself, laddie.”
“When you left me you were going to try to get him the job of looking after your aunt’s canary.”
“Oh, I was feeling rather sore then. That’s all over. I had an earnest talk with the poor zimp, and he means business from now on. And so he ought to, dash it, with a magnificent opportunity like this.”
“We’re on to a big thing now, laddie, the dickens of a big thing.”
“I hope you’ve made sure the other man’s a bachelor. Who is he?”
“Tod Bingham?” I groped in my memory. “You don’t mean the middle-weight champion?”
“That’s the fellow.”
“You don’t expect me to believe that you’ve got a match on with a champion already?”
“It isn’t exactly a match. It’s like this. Tod Bingham is going round the East-end halls offering two hundred quid to anyone who’ll stay four rounds with him. Advertisement stuff. Good old Billson is going to unleash himself at the Shoreditch Empire next Saturday.”
“Do you think he’ll be able to stay four rounds?”
“Stay four rounds!” cried Ukridge. “Why, he could stay four rounds with a fellow armed with a Gatling-gun and a couple of pickaxes. That money’s as good as in our pockets, laddie. And once we’re through with this job, there isn’t a boxing-place in England that won’t jump at us. I don’t mind telling you in confidence, old horse, that in a year from now I expect to be pulling in hundreds a week. Clean up a bit here first, you know, and then pop over to America and make an enormous fortune. Damme, I sha’n’t know how to spend the money!”
“Why not buy some socks? I’m running a bit short of them.”
“Now, laddie, laddie,” said Ukridge, reprovingly, “need we strike a jarring note? Is this the moment to fling your beastly socks in an old friend’s face? A broader-minded spirit is what I would like to see.”
I WAS ten minutes late in arriving at the Regent Grill on the Wednesday of George Tupper’s invitation, and the spectacle of George in person standing bare-headed at the Piccadilly entrance filled me with guilty remorse. George was the best fellow in the world, but the atmosphere of the Foreign Office had increased the tendency he had always had from boyhood to a sort of precise fussiness, and it upset him if his affairs did not run exactly on schedule. The thought that my unpunctuality should have marred this great evening sent me hurrying towards him full of apologies.
“Oh, there you are,” said George Tupper. “I say, it’s too bad——”
“I’m awfully sorry. My watch——”
“Ukridge!” cried George Tupper, and I perceived that it was not I who had caused his concern.
“Isn’t he coming?” I asked, amazed. The idea of Ukridge evading a free meal was one of those that seem to make the solid foundations of the world rock.
“He’s come. And he’s brought a girl with him!”
“In pink, with yellow hair,” wailed George Tupper. “What am I to do?”
I pondered the point.
“It’s a weird thing for even Ukridge to have done,” I said, “but I suppose you’ll have to give her dinner.”
“But the place is full of people I know, and this girl’s so—so spectacular.”
I felt for him deeply, but I could see no way out of it.
“You don’t think I could say I had been taken ill?”
“It would hurt Ukridge’s feelings.”
“I should enjoy hurting Ukridge’s feelings, curse him!” said George Tupper, fervently.
“And it would be an awful slam for the girl, whoever she is.”
George Tupper sighed. His was a chivalrous nature. He drew himself up as if bracing himself for a dreadful ordeal.
“Oh, well, I suppose there’s nothing to do,” he said. “Come along. I left them drinking cocktails in the lounge.”
George had not erred in describing Ukridge’s addition to the festivities as spectacular. Flamboyant would have been a suitable word. As she preceded us down the long dining-room, her arm linked in George Tupper’s—she seemed to have taken a liking to George—I had ample opportunity for studying her, from her patent-leather shoes to the mass of golden hair beneath her picture-hat. She had a loud, clear voice, and she was telling George Tupper the rather intimate details of an internal complaint which had recently troubled an aunt of hers. If George had been the family physician, she could not have been franker; and I could see a dull glow spreading over his shapely ears.
Perhaps Ukridge saw it, too, for he seemed to experience a slight twinge of conscience.
“I have an idea, laddie,” he whispered, “that old Tuppy is a trifle peeved at my bringing Flossie along. If you get a chance, you might just murmur to him that it was military necessity.”
“Who is she?” I asked.
“I told you about her. Flossie, the barmaid at the Crown in Kennington. Billson’s fiancée.”
I looked at him in amazement.
“Do you mean to tell me that you’re courting death by flirting with Battling Billson’s girl?”
“My dear old man, nothing like that,” said Ukridge, shocked. “The whole thing is, I’ve got a particular favour to ask of her—rather a rummy request—and it was no good springing it on her in cold blood. There had to be a certain amount of champagne in advance, and my funds won’t run to champagne. I’m taking her on to the Alhambra after dinner. I’ll look you up to-night and tell you all about it.”
We then proceeded to dine. It was not one of the pleasantest meals of my experience. The future Mrs. Billson prattled agreeably throughout, and Ukridge assisted her in keeping the conversation alive; but the shattered demeanour of George Tupper would have taken the sparkle out of any banquet. From time to time he pulled himself together and endeavoured to play the host, but for the most part he maintained a pale and brooding silence; and it was a relief when Ukridge and his companion rose to leave.
“Well!——” began George Tupper in a strangled voice, as they moved away down the aisle.
I lit a cigar and sat back dutifully to listen.
UKRIDGE arrived in my rooms at midnight, his eyes gleaming through their pince-nez with a strange light. His manner was exuberant.
“It’s all right,” he said.
“I’m glad you think so.”
“Did you explain to Tuppy?”
“I didn’t get a chance. He was talking too hard.”
“Yes. He said everything I’ve always felt about you, only far, far better than I could ever have put it.”
Ukridge’s face clouded for a moment, but cheerfulness returned.
“Oh, well, it can’t be helped. He’ll simmer down in a day or two. It had to be done, laddie. Life and death matter. And it’s all right. Read this.”
I took the letter he handed me. It was written in a scrawly hand.
“Read it, laddie. I think it will meet the case.”
“Who on earth’s Wilberforce?”
“I told you that was Billson’s name.”
I returned to the letter.
‘I take my pen in hand to tell you that I can never be yours. You will no doubt be surprised to hear that I love another and a better man, so that it can never be. He loves me, and he is a better man than you.
‘Hoping this finds you in the pink as it leaves me at present,
‘Florence Burns.’ ”
“I told her to keep it snappy,” said Ukridge.
“Well, she’s certainly done it,” I replied, handing back the letter. “I’m sorry. From the little I saw of her, I thought her a nice girl—for Billson. Do you happen to know the other man’s address? Because it would be a kindly act to send him a post-card advising him to leave England for a year or two.”
“The Shoreditch Empire will find him this week.”
“The other man is Tod Bingham.”
“Tod Bingham!” The drama of the situation moved me. “Do you mean to say that Tod Bingham is in love with Battling Billson’s girl?”
“No. He’s never seen her!”
“What do you mean?”
Ukridge sat down creakingly on the sofa. He slapped my knee with sudden and uncomfortable violence.
“Laddie,” said Ukridge, “I will tell you all. Yesterday afternoon I found old Billson reading a copy of the Daily Sportsman. He isn’t much of a reader as a rule, so I was rather interested to know what had gripped him. And do you know what it was, old horse?”
“I do not.”
“It was an article about Tod Bingham. One of those damned sentimental blurbs they print about pugilists nowadays, saying what a good chap he was in private life and how he always sent a telegram to his old mother after each fight and gave her half the purse. Damme, there ought to be a censorship of the Press. These blighters don’t mind what they print. I don’t suppose Tod Bingham has got an old mother, and if he has I’ll bet he doesn’t give her a bob. There were tears in that chump Billson’s eyes as he showed me the article. Salt tears, laddie! ‘Must be a nice feller!’ he said. Well, I ask you! I mean to say, it’s a bit thick when the man you’ve been pouring out money for and watching over like a baby sister starts getting sorry for a champion three days before he’s due to fight him. A champion, mark you! It was bad enough his getting mushy about that fellow at Wonderland, but when it came to being soft-hearted over Tod Bingham something had to be done. Well, you know me. Brain like a buzz-saw. I saw the only way of counteracting this pernicious stuff was to get him so mad with Tod Bingham that he would forget all about his old mother, so I suddenly thought, Why not get Flossie to pretend that Bingham had cut him out with her? Well, it’s not the sort of thing you can ask a girl to do without preparing the ground a bit, so I brought her along to Tuppy’s dinner. It was a master-stroke, laddie. There’s nothing softens the delicately-nurtured like a good dinner, and there’s no denying that old Tuppy did us well. She agreed the moment I put the thing to her, and sat down and wrote that letter without a blink. I think she thinks it’s all a jolly practical joke. She’s a light-hearted girl.”
“It’ll give poor old Billson a bit of a jar for the time being, I suppose, but it’ll make him spread himself on Saturday night, and he’ll be perfectly happy on Sunday morning when she tells him she didn’t mean it and he realizes that he’s got a hundred quid of Tod Bingham’s in his trousers pocket.”
“I thought you said it was two hundred quid that Bingham was offering.”
“I get a hundred,” said Ukridge, dreamily.
“The only flaw is, the letter doesn’t give the other man’s name. How is Billson to know it’s Tod Bingham?”
“Why, damme, laddie, do use your intelligence. Billson isn’t going to sit and yawn when he gets that letter. He’ll buzz straight down to Kennington and ask Flossie.”
“And then she will give the whole thing away.”
“No, she won’t. I slipped her a couple of quid to promise she wouldn’t. And that reminds me, old man, it has left me a bit short, so if you could possibly manage——”
“Good night,” I said.
“And God bless you,” I added, firmly.
THE Shoreditch Empire is a roomy house, but it was crowded to the doors when I reached it on the Saturday night. In normal circumstances I suppose there would always have been a large audience on a Saturday, and this evening the lure of Tod Bingham’s personal appearance had drawn more than capacity. In return for my shilling I was accorded the privilege of standing against the wall at the back, a position from which I could not see a great deal of the performance.
From the occasional flashes which I got of the stage between the heads of my neighbours, however, and from the generally restless and impatient attitude of the audience I gathered that I was not missing much. The programme of the Shoreditch Empire that week was essentially a one-man affair. The patrons had the air of suffering the preliminary acts as unavoidable obstacles that stand between them and the head-liner. It was Tod Bingham whom they had come to see, and they were not cordial to the unfortunate serio-comics, tramp cyclists, jugglers, acrobats, and ballad singers who intruded themselves during the earlier part of the evening. The cheer that arose as the curtain fell on a dramatic sketch came from the heart, for the next number on the programme was that of the star.
A stout man in evening dress with a red handkerchief worn ambassadorially athwart his shirt-front stepped out from the wings.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
“ ’Ush!” cried the audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
A Voice: “Good ole Tod!” (“Cheese it!”)
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the ambassador for the third time. He scanned the house apprehensively. “Deeply regret have unfortunate disappointment to announce. Tod Bingham unfortunately unable to appear before you to-night.”
A howl like the howl of wolves balked of their prey or of an amphitheatre full of Roman citizens on receipt of the news that the supply of lions had run out greeted these words. We stared at each other with a wild surmise. Could this thing be, or was it not too thick for human belief?
“Wot’s the matter with ’im?” demanded the gallery, hoarsely.
“Yus, wot’s the matter with ’im?” echoed we of the better element on the lower floor.
The ambassador sidled uneasily towards the prompt entrance. He seemed aware that he was not a popular favourite.
“ ’E ’as ’ad an unfortunate accident,” he declared, nervousness beginning to sweep away his aitches wholesale. “On ’is way ’ere to this ’all ’e was unfortunately run into by a truck, sustaining bruises and contusions which render ’im unfortunately unable to appear before you to-night. I beg to announce that ’is place will be taken by Professor Devine, who will render ’is marvellous imitations of various birds and familiar animals. Ladies and gentlemen,” concluded the ambassador, stepping nimbly off the stage, “I thank you one and all.”
The curtain rose and a dapper individual with a waxed moustache skipped on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my first imitation will be of that well-known songster, the common thrush—better known to some of you per’aps as the throstle. And in connection with my performance I wish to state that I ’ave nothing whatsoever in my mouth. The effects which I produce——”
I withdrew, and two-thirds of the audience started to do the same. From behind us, dying away as the doors closed, came the plaintive note of the common thrush feebly competing with that other and sterner bird which haunts those places of entertainment where audiences are critical and swift to take offence.
OUT in the street a knot of Shoreditch’s younger set were hanging on the lips of an excited orator in a battered hat and trousers which had been made for a larger man. Some stirring tale which he was telling held them spellbound. Words came raggedly through the noise of the traffic.
“——like this. Then ’e ’its ’im another like that. Then they start—on the side of the jor——”
“Pass along, there,” interrupted an official voice. “Come on, there, pass along.”
The crowd thinned and resolved itself into its elements. I found myself moving down the street in company with the wearer of the battered hat. Though we had not been formally introduced, he seemed to consider me a suitable recipient for his tale. He enrolled me at once as a nucleus for a fresh audience.
“ ’E comes up, this bloke does, just as Tod is goin’ in at the stage-door——”
“Tod?” I queried.
“Tod Bingham. ’E comes up just as ’e’s goin’ in at the stage-door, and ’e says ‘ ’Ere!’ and Tod says ‘Yus?’ and this bloke ’e says ‘Put ’em up!’ and Tod says ‘Put wot up?’ and this bloke says ‘Yer ’ands,’ and Tod says ‘Wot, me?’—sort of surprised. An’ the next minute they’re fightin’ all over the shop.”
“But surely Tod Bingham was run over by a truck?”
The man in the battered hat surveyed me with the mingled scorn and resentment which the devout bestow on those of heretical views.
“Truck! ’E wasn’t run over by no truck. Wot mikes yer fink ’e was run over by a truck? Wot ’ud ’e be doin’ bein’ run over by a truck? ’E ’ad it put across ’im by this red-’eaded bloke, same as I’m tellin’ yer.”
A great light shone upon me.
“Red-headed?” I cried.
“A big man?”
“And he put it across Tod Bingham?”
“Put it across ’im proper. ’Ad to go ’ome in a keb, Tod did. Funny a bloke that could fight like that bloke could fight ’adn’t the sense to go and do it on the stige and get some money for it. That’s wot I think.”
Across the street an arc-lamp shed its cold rays. And into its glare there strode a man draped in a yellow mackintosh. The light gleamed on his pince-nez and lent a gruesome pallor to his set face. It was Ukridge retreating from Moscow.
“Others,” I said, “are thinking the same.”
And I hurried across the road to administer what feeble consolation I might. There are moments when a fellow needs a friend.
(Another story by Mr. P. G. Wodehouse will appear next month.)
Annotations to this story may be found elsewhere on this site.