The Strand Magazine, September 1923
IT was a most embarrassing moment, one of those moments which plant lines on the face and turn the hair a distinguished grey at the temples. I looked at the barman. The barman looked at me. The assembled company looked at us both impartially.
“Ho!” said the barman.
I am very quick. I could see at once that he was not in sympathy with me. He was a large, profuse man, and his eye as it met mine conveyed the impression that he regarded me as a bad dream come true. His mobile lips curved slightly, showing a gold tooth; and the muscles of his brawny arms, which were strong as iron bands, twitched a little.
“Ho!” he said.
The circumstances which had brought me into my present painful position were as follows. In writing those stories for the popular magazines which at that time were causing so many editors so much regret, I was accustomed, like one of my brother-authors, to take all mankind for my province. Thus, one day I would be dealing with dukes in their castles, the next I would turn right round and start tackling the submerged tenth in their slums. Versatile. At the moment I happened to be engaged upon a rather poignant little thing about a girl called Liz, who worked in a fried-fish shop in the Ratcliff Highway, and I had accordingly gone down there to collect local colour. For whatever Posterity may say of James Corcoran, it can never say that he shrank from inconvenience where his Art was concerned.
The Ratcliff Highway is an interesting thoroughfare, but on a warm day it breeds thirst. After wandering about for an hour or so, therefore, I entered the Prince of Wales public-house, called for a pint of beer, drained it at a draught, reached in my pocket for coin, and found emptiness. I was in a position to add to my notes on the East-end of London one to the effect that pocket-pickery flourishes there as a fine art.
“I’m awfully sorry,” I said, smiling an apologetic smile and endeavouring to put a debonair winsomeness into my voice. “I find I’ve got no money.”
It was at this point that the barman said “Ho!” and moved out into the open through a trick door in the counter.
“I think my pocket must have been picked,” I said.
“Oh, do you?” said the barman.
He gave me the idea of being rather a soured man. Years of association with unscrupulous citizens who tried to get drinks for nothing had robbed him of that fine fresh young enthusiasm with which he had started out on his career of barmanship.
“I had better leave my name and address,” I suggested.
“Who,” inquired the barman, coldly, “wants your blinking name and address?”
These practical men go straight to the heart of a thing. He had put his finger on the very nub of the matter. Who did want my blinking name and address? No one.
“I will send——” I was proceeding, when things began to happen suddenly. An obviously expert hand gripped me by the back of the neck, another closed upon the seat of my trousers, there was a rush of air, and I was rolling across the pavement in the direction of a wet and unsavoury gutter. The barman, gigantic against the dirty white front of the public-house, surveyed me grimly.
I think that, if he had confined himself to mere looks—however offensive—I would have gone no farther into the matter. After all, the man had right on his side. How could he be expected to see into my soul and note its snowy purity? But, as I picked myself up, he could not resist the temptation to improve the occasion.
“That’s what comes of tryin’ to snitch drinks,” he said, with what seemed to me insufferable priggishness.
Those harsh words stung me to the quick. I burned with generous wrath. I flung myself on that barman. The futility of attacking such a Colossus never occurred to me. I forgot entirely that he could put me out of action with one hand.
A moment later, however, he had reminded me of this fact. Even as I made my onslaught an enormous fist came from nowhere and crashed into the side of my head. I sat down again.
I was aware, dimly, that someone was speaking to me, someone who was not the barman. That athlete had already dismissed me as a spent force and returned to his professional duties. I looked up and got a sort of general impression of bigness and blue serge, and then I was lifted lightly to my feet.
My head had begun to clear now, and I was able to look more steadily at my sympathizer. And, as I looked, the feeling came to me that I had seen him before somewhere. That red hair, those glinting eyes, that impressive bulk—it was my old friend Wilberforce Billson and no other—Battling Billson, the coming champion, whom I had last seen fighting at Wonderland under the personal management of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.
“Did ’e ’it yer?” inquired Mr. Billson.
There was only one answer to this. Disordered though my faculties were, I was clear upon this point. I said, “Yes, he did hit me.”
“ ’R!” said Mr. Billson, and immediately passed into the hostelry.
It was not at once that I understood the significance of this move. The interpretation I placed upon his abrupt departure was that, having wearied of my society, he had decided to go and have some refreshment. Only when the sound of raised voices from within came pouring through the door did I begin to suspect that in attributing to it such callousness I might have wronged that golden nature. With the sudden reappearance of the barman—who shot out as if impelled by some imperious force and did a sort of backwards fox-trot across the pavement—suspicion became certainty.
The barman, as becomes a man plying his trade in the Ratcliff Highway, was made of stern stuff. He was no poltroon. As soon as he had managed to stop himself from pirouetting, he dabbed at his right cheek-bone in a delicate manner, soliloquized for a moment, and then dashed back into the bar. And it was after the door had swung to again behind him that the proceedings may have been said formally to have begun.
What precisely was going on inside that bar I was still too enfeebled to go and see. It sounded like an earthquake, and no meagre earthquake at that. All the glassware in the world seemed to be smashing simultaneously, the populations of several cities were shouting in unison, and I could almost fancy that I saw the walls of the building shake and heave. And then somebody blew a police-whistle.
There is a magic about the sound of a police-whistle. It acts like oil on the most troubled waters. This one brought about an instant lull in the tumult. Glasses ceased to break, voices were hushed, and a moment later out came Mr. Billson, standing not upon the order of his going. His nose was bleeding a little and there was the scenario of a black eye forming on his face, but otherwise there seemed nothing much the matter with him. He cast a wary look up and down the street and sprinted for the nearest corner. And I, shaking off the dreamy after-effects of my encounter with the barman, sprinted in his wake. I was glowing with gratitude and admiration. I wanted to catch this man up and thank him formally. I wanted to assure him of my undying esteem. Moreover, I wanted to borrow sixpence from him. The realization that he was the only man in the whole wide East-end of London who was likely to lend me the money to save me having to walk back to Ebury Street gave me a rare burst of speed.
It was not easy to overtake him, for the sound of my pursuing feet evidently suggested to Mr. Billson that the hunt was up, and he made good going. Eventually, however, when in addition to running I began to emit a plaintive “Mr. Billson! I say, Mr. Billson!” at every second stride, he seemed to gather that he was among friends.
“Oh, it’s you, is it?” he said, halting.
He was plainly relieved. He produced a murky pipe and lit it. I delivered my speech of thanks. Having heard me out, he removed his pipe and put into a few short words the moral of the whole affair.
“Nobody don’t dot no pals of mine not when I’m around,” said Mr. Billson.
“It was awfully good of you to trouble,” I said with feeling.
“No trouble,” said Mr. Billson.
“You must have hit that barman pretty hard. He came out at about forty miles an hour.”
“I dotted him,” agreed Mr. Billson.
“I’m afraid he has hurt your eye,” I said, sympathetically.
“Him!” said Mr. Billson, expectorating with scorn. “That wasn’t him. That was his pals. Six or seven of ’em there was.”
“And did you dot them too?” I cried, amazed at the prowess of this wonder-man.
“ ’R!” said Mr. Billson. He smoked awhile. “But I dotted ’im most,” he proceeded. He looked at me with honest warmth, his chivalrous heart plainly stirred to its depths. “The idea,” he said, disgustedly, “of a —— —— —— ’is size”—he defined the barman crisply and, as far as I could judge after so brief an acquaintanceship, accurately—“goin’ and dottin’ a little —— —— like you!”
The sentiment was so admirable that I could not take exception to its phraseology. Nor did I rebel at being called “little.” To a man of Mr. Billson’s mould I supposed most people looked little.
“Well, I’m very much obliged,” I said.
Mr. Billson smoked in silence.
“Have you been back long?” I asked, for something to say. Outstanding as were his other merits, he was not good at keeping a conversation alive.
“Back?” said Mr. Billson.
“Back in London. Ukridge told me that you had gone to sea again.”
“Say, mister,” exclaimed Mr. Billson, for the first time seeming to show real interest in my remarks, “you seen ’im lately?”
“Ukridge? Oh, yes, I see him nearly every day.”
“I been tryin’ to find ’im.”
“I can give you his address,” I said. And I wrote it down on the back of an envelope. Then, having shaken his hand, I thanked him once more for his courteous assistance and borrowed my fare back to Civilization on the Underground, and we parted with mutual expressions of good will.
THE next step in the march of events was what I shall call the Episode of the Inexplicable Female. It occurred two days later. Returning shortly after lunch to my rooms in Ebury Street, I was met in the hall by Mrs. Bowles, my landlord’s wife. I greeted her a trifle nervously, for, like her husband, she always exercised a rather oppressive effect on me. She lacked Bowles’s ambassadorial dignity, but made up for it by a manner so peculiarly sepulchral that strong men quailed before her pale gaze. Scotch by birth, she had an eye that looked as if it was for ever searching for astral bodies wrapped in winding-sheets—this, I believe, being a favourite indoor sport among certain sets in North Britain.
“Sir,” said Mrs. Bowles, “there is a body in your sitting-room.”
“A body!” I am bound to say that this Phillips-Oppenheim-like opening to the conversation gave me something of a shock. Then I remembered her nationality. “Oh, you mean a man?”
“A woman,” corrected Mrs. Bowles. “A body in a pink hat.”
I was conscious of a feeling of guilt. In this pure and modest house, female bodies in pink hats seemed to require explanation. I felt that the correct thing to do would have been to call upon Heaven to witness that this woman was nothing to me, nothing.
“I was to give you this letter, sir.”
I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognized the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintanceship there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.
“My dear old horse,—
“It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me . . .
I laughed hollowly.
“My dear old horse,—
“It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me, laddie, but I beg and implore you to rally round now and show yourself the true friend I know you are. The one thing I’ve always said about you, Corky my boy, is that you’re a real pal who never lets a fellow down.
“The bearer of this—a delightful woman, you’ll like her—is Flossie’s mother. She’s up for the day by excursion from the North, and it is absolutely vital that she be lushed up and seen off at Euston at six-forty-five. I can’t look after her myself, as unfortunately I’m laid up with a sprained ankle. Otherwise I wouldn’t trouble you.
“This is a life and death matter, old man, and I’m relying on you. I can’t possibly tell you how important it is that this old bird should be suitably entertained. The gravest issues hang on it. So shove on your hat and go to it, laddie, and blessings will reward you. Tell you all the details when we meet.
“S. F. Ukridge.
“P.S.—I will defray all expenses later.”
Those last words did wring a faint, melancholy smile from me, but apart from them this hideous document seemed to me to be entirely free from comic relief. I looked at my watch and found that it was barely two-thirty. This female, therefore, was on my hands for a solid four hours and a quarter. I breathed maledictions—futile, of course, for it was a peculiar characteristic of the demon Ukridge on these occasions that, unless one were strong-minded enough to disregard his frenzied pleadings altogether (a thing which was nearly always beyond me), he gave one no chance of escape. He sprang his foul schemes on one at the very last moment, leaving no opportunity for a graceful refusal.
I PROCEEDED slowly up the stairs to my sitting-room. It would have been a distinct advantage, I felt, if I had known who on earth this Flossie was of whom he wrote with such airy familiarity. The name, though Ukridge plainly expected it to touch a chord in me, left me entirely unresponsive. As far as I was aware, there was no Flossie of any description in my life. I thought back through the years. Long-forgotten Janes and Kates and Muriels and Elizabeths rose from the murky depths of my memory as I stirred it, but no Flossie. It occurred to me as I opened the door that, if Ukridge was expecting pleasant reminiscences of Flossie to form a tender bond between me and her mother, he was building on sandy soil.
The first impression I got on entering the room was that Mrs. Bowles possessed the true reporter’s gift for picking out the detail that really mattered. One could have said many things about Flossie’s mother, as, for instance, that she was stout, cheerful, and far more tightly laced than a doctor would have considered judicious; but what stood out above all the others was the fact that she was wearing a pink hat. It was the largest, gayest, most exuberantly ornate specimen of head-wear that I had ever seen, and the prospect of spending four hours and a quarter in its society added the last touch to my already poignant gloom. The only gleam of sunshine that lightened my darkness was the reflection that, if we went to a picture-palace, she would have to remove it.
“Er—how do you do?” I said, pausing in the doorway.
“ ’Ow do you do?” said a voice from under the hat. “Say ‘ ’Ow-do-you-do?’ to the gentleman, Cecil.”
I perceived a small, shiny boy by the window. Ukridge, realizing with the true artist’s instinct that the secret of all successful prose is the knowledge of what to omit, had not mentioned him in his letter; and, as he turned reluctantly to go through the necessary civilities, it seemed to me that the burden was more than I could bear. He was a rat-faced, sinister-looking boy, and he gazed at me with a frigid distaste which reminded me of the barman at the Prince of Wales public-house in Ratcliff Highway.
“I brought Cecil along,” said Flossie’s (and presumably Cecil’s) mother, after the stripling, having growled a cautious greeting, obviously with the mental reservation that it committed him to nothing, had returned to the window, “because I thought it would be nice for ’im to say he had seen London.”
“Quite, quite,” I replied, while Cecil, at the window, gazed darkly out at London as if he did not think much of it.
“Mr. Ukridge said you would trot us round.”
“Delighted, delighted,” I quavered, looking at the hat and looking swiftly away again. “I think we had better go to a picture-palace, don’t you?”
“Naw!” said Cecil. And there was that in his manner which suggested that when he said “Naw!” it was final.
“Cecil wants to see the sights,” explained his mother. “We can see all the pictures back at home. ’E’s been lookin’ forward to seein’ the sights of London. It’ll be an education for ’im, like, to see all the sights.”
“Westminster Abbey?” I suggested. After all, what could be better for the lad’s growing mind than to inspect the memorials of the great past and, if disposed, pick out a suitable site for his own burial at some later date? Also, I had a fleeting notion, which a moment’s reflection exploded before it could bring me much comfort, that women removed their hats in Westminster Abbey.
“Naw!” said Cecil.
“ ’E wants to see the murders,” explained Flossie’s mother.
She spoke as if it were the most reasonable of boyish desires, but it sounded to me impracticable. Homicides do not publish formal programmes of their intended activities. I had no notion what murders were scheduled for to-day.
“ ’E always reads up all the murders in the Sunday paper,” went on the parent, throwing light on the matter.
“Oh, I understand,” I said. “Then Madame Tussaud’s is the spot he wants. They’ve got all the murderers.”
“Naw!” said Cecil.
“It’s the places ’e wants to see,” said Flossie’s mother, amiably tolerant of my density. “The places where all them murders was committed. ’E’s clipped out the addresses and ’e wants to be able to tell ’is friends when he gets back that ’e’s seen ’em.”
A profound relief surged over me.
“Why, we can do the whole thing in a cab,” I cried. “We can stay in a cab from start to finish. No need to leave the cab at all.”
“Or a bus?”
“Not a bus,” I said firmly. I was quite decided on a cab—one with blinds that would pull down, if possible.
“ ’Ave it your own way,” said Flossie’s mother, agreeably. “Speaking as far as I’m personally concerned, I’m shaw there’s nothing I would rather prefer than a nice ride in a keb. Jear what the gentleman says, Cecil? You’re goin’ to ride in a keb.”
“Urgh!” said Cecil, as if he would believe it when he saw it. A sceptical boy.
IT was not an afternoon to which I look back as among the happiest I have spent. For one thing, the expedition far exceeded my hasty estimates in the matter of expense. Why it should be so I cannot say, but all the best murders appear to take place in remote spots like Stepney and Canning Town, and cab-fares to these places run into money. Then, again, Cecil’s was not one of those personalities which become more attractive with familiarity. I should say at a venture that those who liked him best were those who saw the least of him. And, finally, there was a monotony about the entire proceedings which soon began to afflict my nerves. The cab would draw up outside some mouldering house in some desolate street miles from civilization, Cecil would thrust his unpleasant head out of window and drink the place in for a few moments of silent ecstasy, and then he would deliver his lecture. He had evidently read well and thoughtfully. He had all the information.
“The Canning Town ’Orror,” he would announce.
“Yes, dearie?” His mother cast a fond glance at him and a proud one at me. “In this very ’ouse, was it?”
“In this very ’ouse,” said Cecil, with the gloomy importance of a confirmed bore about to hold forth on his favourite subject. “Jimes Potter ’is nime was. ’E was found at seven in the morning underneaf the kitchen sink wiv ’is froat cut from ear to ear. It was the landlady’s brother done it. They ’anged ’im at Pentonville.”
Some more data from the child’s inexhaustible store, and then on to the next historic site.
“The Bing Street ’Orror!”
“In this very ’ouse, dearie?”
“In this very ’ouse. Body was found in the cellar in an advanced stige of dee-cawm-po-sition wiv its ’ead bashed in, prezoomably by some blunt instrument.”
AT six-forty-six, ignoring the pink hat which protruded from the window of a third-class compartment and the stout hand that waved a rollicking farewell, I turned from the train with a pale, set face, and, passing down the platform of Euston Station, told a cabman to take me with all speed to Ukridge’s lodgings in Arundel Street, Leicester Square. There had never, so far as I knew, been a murder in Arundel Street, but I was strongly of opinion that that time was ripe. Cecil’s society and conversation had done much to neutralize the effects of a gentle upbringing, and I toyed almost luxuriously with the thought of supplying him with an Arundel Street Horror for his next visit to the Metropolis.
“Aha, laddie,” said Ukridge, as I entered. “Come in, old horse. Glad to see you. Been wondering when you would turn up.”
He was in bed, but that did not remove the suspicion which had been growing in me all the afternoon that he was a low malingerer. I refused to believe for a moment in that sprained ankle of his. My view was that he had had the advantage of a first look at Flossie’s mother and her engaging child and had shrewdly passed them on to me.
“I’ve been reading your book, old man,” said Ukridge, breaking a pregnant silence with an overdone carelessness. He brandished winningly the only novel I had ever written, and I can offer no better proof of the black hostility of my soul than the statement that even this did not soften me. “It’s immense, laddie. No other word for it. Immense. Damme, I’ve been crying like a child.”
“It is supposed to be a humorous novel,” I pointed out, coldly.
“Crying with laughter,” explained Ukridge, hurriedly.
I eyed him with loathing.
“Where do you keep your blunt instruments?” I asked.
“Your blunt instruments. I want a blunt instrument. Give me a blunt instrument. My God! Don’t tell me you have no blunt instrument.”
“Only a safety-razor.”
I sat down wearily on the bed.
“Hi! Mind my ankle!”
“Your ankle!” I laughed a hideous laugh, the sort of laugh the landlady’s brother might have emitted before beginning operations on James Potter. “A lot there is the matter with your ankle.”
“Sprained it yesterday, old man. Nothing serious,” said Ukridge, reassuringly. “Just enough to lay me up for a couple of days.”
“Yes, till that ghastly female and her blighted boy had got well away.”
Pained astonishment was written all over Ukridge’s face.
“You don’t mean to say you didn’t like her? Why, I thought you two would be all over each other.”
“And I suppose you thought that Cecil and I would be twin souls?”
“Cecil?” said Ukridge, doubtfully. “Well, to tell you the truth, old man, I’m not saying that Cecil doesn’t take a bit of knowing. He’s the sort of boy you have to be patient with and bring out, if you understand what I mean. I think he grows on you.”
“If he ever tries to grow on me, I’ll have him amputated.”
“Well, putting all that on one side,” said Ukridge, “how did things go off?”
I described the afternoon’s activities in a few tense words.
“Well, I’m sorry, old horse,” said Ukridge, when I had finished. “I can’t say more than that, can I? I’m sorry. I give you my solemn word I didn’t know what I was letting you in for. But it was a life and death matter. There was no other way out. Flossie insisted on it. Wouldn’t budge an inch.”
IN my anguish I had forgotten all about the impenetrable mystery of Flossie.
“Who the devil is Flossie?” I asked.
“What! Flossie? You don’t know who Flossie is? My dear old man, collect yourself. You must remember Flossie. The barmaid at the Crown in Kennington. The girl Battling Billson is engaged to. Surely you haven’t forgotten Flossie? Why, she was saying only yesterday that you had nice eyes.”
Memory awoke. I felt ashamed that I could ever have forgotten a girl so bounding and spectacular.
“Of course! The blister you brought with you that night George Tupper gave us dinner at the Regent Grill. By the way, has George ever forgiven you for that?”
“There is still a little coldness,” admitted Ukridge, ruefully. “I’m bound to say old Tuppy seems to be letting the thing rankle a bit. The fact of the matter is, old horse, Tuppy has his limitations. He isn’t a real friend like you. Delightful fellow, but lacks vision. Can’t understand that there are certain occasions when it is simply imperative that a man’s pals rally round him. Now you——”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I am hoping that what I went through this afternoon really was for some good cause. I should be sorry, now that I am in a cooler frame of mind, to have to strangle you where you lie. Would you mind telling me exactly what was the idea behind all this?”
“It’s like this, laddie. Good old Billson blew in to see me the other day.”
“I met him down in the East-end and he asked for your address.”
“Yes, he told me.”
“What’s going on? Are you still managing him?”
“Yes. That’s what he wanted to see me about. Apparently the contract has another year to run and he can’t fix up anything without my O.K. And he’s just had an offer to fight a bloke called Alf Todd at the Universal.”
“That’s a step up from Wonderland,” I said, for I had a solid respect for this Mecca of the boxing world. “How much is he getting this time?”
“Two hundred quid.”
“Two hundred quid! But that’s a lot for practically an unknown man.”
“Unknown man?” said Ukridge, hurt. “What do you mean, unknown man? If you ask my opinion, I should say the whole pugilistic world is seething with excitement about old Billson. Literally seething. Didn’t he slosh the middleweight champion?”
“Yes, in a rough-and-tumble in a back alley. And nobody saw him do it.”
“Well, these things get about.”
“But two hundred pounds!”
“A fleabite, laddie, a fleabite. You can take it from me that we shall be asking a lot more than a measly couple of hundred for our services pretty soon. Thousands, thousands! Still, I’m not saying it won’t be something to be going on with. Well, as I say, old Billson came to me and said he had had this offer, and how about it? And when I realized that I was in halves, I jolly soon gave him my blessing and told him to go as far as he liked. So you can imagine how I felt when Flossie put her foot down like this.”
“Like what? About ten minutes ago, when you started talking, you seemed to be on the point of explaining about Flossie. How does she come to be mixed up with the thing? What did she do?”
“Only wanted to stop the whole business, laddie, that was all. Just put the kybosh on the entire works. Said he mustn’t fight!”
“That was what she said. Just in that airy, careless way, as if the most stupendous issues didn’t hang on his fighting as he had never fought before. Said—if you’ll believe me, laddie; I sha’n’t blame you if you don’t—that she didn’t want his looks spoiled.” Ukridge gazed at me with lifted eyebrows while he let this evidence of feminine perverseness sink in. “His looks, old man! You got the word correctly? His looks! She didn’t want his looks spoiled. Why, damme, he hasn’t got any looks. There isn’t any possible manner in which you could treat that man’s face without improving it. I argued with her by the hour, but no, she couldn’t see it. Avoid women, laddie, they have no intelligence.”
“Well, I’ll promise to avoid Flossie’s mother, if that’ll satisfy you. How does she come into the thing?”
“Now, there’s a woman in a million, my boy. She saved the situation. She came along at the eleventh hour and snatched your old friend out of the soup. It seems she has a habit of popping up to London at intervals, and Flossie, while she loves and respects her, finds that from ten minutes to a quarter of an hour of the old dear gives her the pip to such an extent that she’s a nervous wreck for days.”
I felt my heart warm to the future Mrs. Billson. Despite Ukridge’s slurs, a girl, it seemed to me, of the soundest intelligence.
“So when Flossie told me—with tears in her eyes, poor girl—that mother was due to-day, I had the inspiration of a lifetime. Said I would take her off her hands from start to finish if she would agree to let Billson fight at the Universal. Well, it shows you what family affection is, laddie; she jumped at it. I don’t mind telling you she broke down completely and kissed me on both cheeks. The rest, old horse, you know.”
“Yes. The rest I do know.”
“Never,” said Ukridge, solemnly, “never, old son, till the sands of the desert grow cold, shall I forget how you have stood by me this day!”
“Oh, all right. I expect in about a week from now you will be landing me with something equally foul.”
“When does this fight come off?”
“A week from to-night. I’m relying on you to be at my side. Tense nervous strain, old man; shall want a pal to see me through.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for worlds. I’ll give you dinner before we go there, shall I?”
“Spoken like a true friend,” said Ukridge, warmly. “And on the following night I will stand you the banquet of your life. A banquet which will ring down the ages. For, mark you, laddie, I shall be in funds. In funds, my boy.”
“Yes, if Billson wins. What does he get if he loses?”
“Loses? He won’t lose. How the deuce can he lose? I’m surprised at you talking in that silly way when you’ve seen him only a few days ago. Didn’t he strike you as being pretty fit when you saw him?”
“Yes, by Jove, he certainly did.”
“Well, then! Why, it looks to me as if the sea air had made him tougher than ever. I’ve only just got my fingers straightened out after shaking hands with him. He could win the heavyweight championship of the world to-morrow without taking his pipe out of his mouth. Alf Todd,” said Ukridge, soaring to an impressive burst of imagery, “has about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild-cat’s left ear with a red-hot needle.”
ALTHOUGH I knew several of the members, for one reason or another I had never been inside the Universal Sporting Club, and the atmosphere of the place when we arrived on the night of the fight impressed me a good deal. It was vastly different from Wonderland, the East-end home of pugilism where I had witnessed the Battler make his début. There, a certain laxness in the matter of costume had been the prevailing note; here, white shirt-fronts gleamed on every side. Wonderland, moreover, had been noisy. Patrons of sport had so far forgotten themselves as to whistle through their fingers and shout badinage at distant friends. At the Universal one might have been in church. In fact, the longer I sat, the more ecclesiastical did the atmosphere seem to become. When we arrived, two acolytes in the bantam class were going devoutly through the ritual under the eye of the presiding minister, while a large congregation looked on in hushed silence. As we took our seats, this portion of the service came to an end and the priest announced that Nippy Coggs was the winner. A reverent murmur arose for an instant from the worshippers, Nippy Coggs disappeared into the vestry, and after a pause of a few minutes I perceived the familiar form of Battling Billson coming up the aisle.
There was no doubt about it, the Battler did look good. His muscles seemed more cable-like than ever, and a recent hair-cut had given a knobby, bristly appearance to his head which put him even more definitely than before in the class of those with whom the sensible man would not lightly quarrel. Mr. Todd, his antagonist, who followed him a moment later, was no beauty—the almost complete absence of any division between his front hair and his eyebrows would alone have prevented him being that—but he lacked a certain je-ne-sais-quoi which the Battler pre-eminently possessed. From the first instant of his appearance in the public eye our man was a warm favourite. There was a pleased flutter in the pews as he took his seat, and I could hear whispered voices offering substantial bets on him.
“Six-round bout,” announced the padre. “Battling Billson (Bermondsey) versus Alf Todd (Marylebone). Gentlemen will kindly stop smoking.”
The congregation relit their cigars and the fight began.
BEARING in mind how vitally Ukridge’s fortunes were bound up in his protégé’s success to-night, I was relieved to observe that Mr. Todd opened the proceedings in a manner that seemed to offer little scope for any display of Battling Billson’s fatal kind-heartedness. I had not forgotten how at Wonderland our Battler, with the fight in hand, had allowed victory to be snatched from him purely through a sentimental distaste for being rough with his adversary, a man who had had a lot of trouble and had touched Mr. Billson’s heart thereby. Such a disaster was unlikely to occur to-night. It was difficult to see how anyone in the same ring with him could possibly be sorry for Alf Todd. A tender pity was the last thing his behaviour was calculated to rouse in the bosom of an opponent. Directly the gong sounded, he tucked away what little forehead Nature had given him beneath his fringe, breathed loudly through his nose, and galloped into the fray. He seemed to hold no bigoted views as to which hand it was best to employ as a medium of attack. Right or left, it was all one to Alf. And if he could not hit Mr. Billson with his hands, he was perfectly willing, so long as the eye of authority was not too keenly vigilant, to butt him with his head. Broad-minded—that was Alf Todd.
Wilberforce Billson, veteran of a hundred fights on a hundred scattered water-fronts, was not backward in joining the revels. In him Mr. Todd found a worthy and a willing playmate. As Ukridge informed me in a hoarse whisper while the vicar was reproaching Alf for placing an elbow where no elbow should have been, this sort of thing was as meat and drink to Wilberforce. It was just the kind of warfare he had been used to all his life, and precisely the sort most calculated to make him give of his best—a dictum which was strikingly endorsed a moment later, when, after some heated exchanges in which, generous donor though he was, he had received more than he had bestowed, Mr. Todd was compelled to slither back and do a bit of fancy side-stepping. The round came to an end with the Battler distinctly leading on points, and so spirited had it been that applause broke out in various parts of the edifice.
The second round followed the same general lines as the first. The fact that up to now he had been foiled in his attempts to resolve Battling Billson into his component parts had had no damping effect on Alf Todd’s ardour. He was still the same active, energetic soul, never sparing himself in his efforts to make the party go. There was a whole-hearted abandon in his rushes which reminded one of a short-tempered gorilla trying to get at its keeper. Occasionally some extra warmth on the part of his antagonist would compel him to retire momentarily into a clinch, but he always came out of it as ready as ever to resume the argument. Nevertheless, at the end of round two he was still a shade behind. Round three added further points to the Battler’s score, and at the end of round four Alf Todd had lost so much ground that the most liberal odds were required to induce speculators to venture their cash on his chances.
And then the fifth round began, and those who a minute before had taken odds of three to one on the Battler and openly proclaimed the money as good as in their pockets stiffened in their seats or bent forward with pale and anxious faces. A few brief moments back it had seemed to them incredible that this sure thing could come unstitched. There was only this round and the next to go—a mere six minutes of conflict; and Mr. Billson was so far ahead on points that nothing but the accident of his being knocked out could lose him the decision. And you had only to look at Wilberforce Billson to realize the absurdity of his being knocked out. Even I, who had seen him go through the process at Wonderland, refused to consider the possibility. If ever there was a man in the pink, it was Wilberforce Billson.
But in boxing there is always the thousandth chance. As he came out of his corner for round five, it suddenly became plain that things were not well with our man. Some chance blow in that last mêlée of round four must have found a vital spot, for he was obviously in bad shape. Incredible as it seemed, Battling Billson was groggy. He shuffled rather than stepped; he blinked in a manner damping to his supporters; he was clearly finding increasing difficulty in foiling the boisterous attentions of Mr. Todd. Sibilant whispers arose; Ukridge clutched my arm in an agonized grip; voices were offering to bet on Alf; and in the Battler’s corner, their heads peering through the ropes, those members of the minor clergy who had been told off to second our man were wan with apprehension.
Mr. Todd, for his part, was a new man. He had retired to his corner at the end of the preceding round with the moody step of one who sees failure looming ahead. “I’m always chasing rainbows,” Mr. Todd’s eye had seemed to say as it rested gloomily on the resined floor. “Another dream shattered!” And he had come out for round five with the sullen weariness of the man who has been helping to amuse the kiddies at a children’s party and has had enough of it. Ordinary politeness rendered it necessary for him to see this uncongenial business through to the end, but his heart was no longer in it.
And then, instead of the steel and india-rubber warrior who had smitten him so sorely at their last meeting, he found this sagging wreck. For an instant sheer surprise seemed to shackle Mr. Todd’s limbs, then he adjusted himself to the new conditions. It was as if somebody had grafted monkey-glands on to Alfred Todd. He leaped at Battling Billson, and Ukridge’s grip on my arm became more painful than ever.
A sudden silence fell upon the house. It was a tense, expectant silence, for affairs had reached a crisis. Against the ropes near his corner the Battler was leaning, heedless of the well-meant counsel of his seconds, and Alf Todd, with his fringe now almost obscuring his eyes, was feinting for an opening. There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; and Alf Todd plainly realized this. He fiddled for an instant with his hands, as if he were trying to mesmerize Mr. Billson, then plunged forward.
A great shout went up. The congregation appeared to have lost all sense of what place this was that they were in. They were jumping up and down in their seats and bellowing deplorably. For the crisis had been averted. Somehow or other Wilberforce Billson had contrived to escape from that corner, and now he was out in the middle of the ring, respited.
And yet he did not seem pleased. His usually expressionless face was contorted with pain and displeasure. For the first time in the entire proceedings he appeared genuinely moved. Watching him closely, I could see his lips moving, perhaps in prayer. And as Mr. Todd, bounding from the ropes, advanced upon him, he licked those lips. He licked them in a sinister meaning way, and his right hand dropped slowly down below his knee.
Alf Todd came on. He came jauntily and in the manner of one moving to a feast or festival. This was the end of a perfect day, and he knew it. He eyed Battling Billson as if the latter had been a pot of beer. But for the fact that he came of a restrained and unemotional race, he would doubtless have burst into song. He shot out his left and it landed on Mr. Billson’s nose. Nothing happened. He drew back his right and poised it almost lovingly for a moment. It was during this moment that Battling Billson came to life.
To Alf Todd it must have seemed like a resurrection. For the last two minutes he had been testing in every way known to science his theory that this man before him no longer possessed the shadow of a punch, and the theory had seemed proven up to the hilt. Yet here he was now behaving like an unleashed whirlwind. A disquieting experience. The ropes collided with the small of Alf Todd’s back. Something else collided with his chin. He endeavoured to withdraw, but a pulpy glove took him on the odd fungoid growth which he was accustomed laughingly to call his ear. Another glove impinged upon his jaw. And there the matter ended for Alf Todd.
“Battling Billson is the winner,” intoned the vicar.
“Wow!” shouted the congregation.
“Whew!” breathed Ukridge in my ear.
It had been a near thing, but the old firm had pulled through at the finish.
UKRIDGE bounded off to the dressing-room to give his Battler a manager’s blessing; and presently, the next fight proving something of an anti-climax after all the fevered stress of its predecessor, I left the building and went home. I was smoking a last pipe before going to bed when a violent ring at the front-door bell broke in on my meditations. It was followed by the voice of Ukridge in the hall.
I was a little surprised. I had not been expecting to see Ukridge again to-night. His intention when we parted at the Universal had been to reward Mr. Billson with a bit of supper; and, as the Battler had a coy distaste for the taverns of the West-end, this involved a journey to the far East, where in congenial surroundings the coming champion would drink a good deal of beer and eat more hard-boiled eggs than you would have believed possible. The fact that the host was now thundering up my stairs seemed to indicate that the feast had fallen through. And the fact that the feast had fallen through suggested that something had gone wrong.
“Give me a drink, old horse,” said Ukridge, bursting into the room.
“What on earth’s the matter?”
“Nothing, old horse, nothing. I’m a ruined man, that’s all.”
He leaped feverishly at the decanter and siphon which Bowles had placed upon the table. I watched him with concern. This could be no ordinary tragedy that had changed him thus from the ebullient creature of joy who had left me at the Universal. A thought flashed through my mind that Battling Billson must have been disqualified—to be rejected a moment later, when I remembered that fighters are not disqualified as an after-thought half an hour after the fight. But what else could have brought about this anguish? If ever there was an occasion for solemn rejoicing, now would have seemed to be the time.
“What’s the matter?” I asked again.
“Matter? I’ll tell you what’s the matter,” moaned Ukridge. He splashed seltzer into his glass. He reminded me of King Lear. “Do you know how much I get out of that fight to-night? Ten quid! Just ten rotten contemptible sovereigns! That’s what’s the matter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The purse was thirty pounds. Twenty for the winner. My share is ten. Ten, I’ll trouble you! What in the name of everything infernal is the good of ten quid?”
“But you said Billson told you——”
“Yes, I know I did. Two hundred was what he told me he was to get. And the weak-minded, furtive, underhanded son of Belial didn’t explain that he was to get it for losing!”
“Yes. He was to get it for losing. Some fellows who wanted a chance to do some heavy betting persuaded him to sell the fight.”
“But he didn’t sell the fight.”
“I know that, dammit. That’s the whole trouble. And do you know why he didn’t? I’ll tell you. Just as he was all ready to let himself be knocked out in that fifth round, the other bloke happened to tread on his ingrowing toe-nail, and that made him so mad that he forgot about everything else and sailed in and hammered the stuffing out of him. I ask you, laddie! I appeal to you as a reasonable man. Have you ever in your life heard of such a footling, idiotic, woollen-headed proceeding? Throwing away a fortune, an absolute dashed fortune, purely to gratify a momentary whim! Hurling away wealth beyond the dreams of avarice simply because a bloke stamped on his ingrowing toe-nail. His ingrowing toe-nail!” Ukridge laughed raspingly. “What right has a boxer to have an ingrowing toe-nail? And if he has an ingrowing toe-nail, surely—my gosh!—he can stand a little trifling discomfort for half a minute. The fact of the matter is, old horse, boxers aren’t what they were. Degenerate, laddie, absolutely degenerate. No heart. No courage. No self-respect. No vision. The old bulldog breed has disappeared entirely.”
And with a moody nod Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge passed out into the night.
(Another P. G. Wodehouse story next month.)
Annotations to this story may be found elsewhere on this site.