Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 26

The flower of the grass — Days of pugilism — The rendezvous — Jews — Bruisers of England — Winter, spring — Well-earned bays — The fight — Huge black cloud — Frame of adamant — The storm — Dukkeripens — The barouche — The rain-gushes.

How for everything there is a time and a season, and then how does the glory of a thing pass from it, even like the flower of the grass. This is a truism, but it is one of those which are continually forcing themselves upon the mind. Many years have not passed over my head, yet, during those which I can recall to remembrance, how many things have I seen flourish, pass away, and become forgotten, except by myself, who, in spite of all my endeavours, never can forget anything. I have known the time when a pugilistic encounter between two noted champions was almost considered in the light of a national affair; when tens of thousands of individuals, high and low, meditated and brooded upon it, the first thing in the morning and the last at night, until the great event was decided. But the time is past, and many people will say, thank God that it is; all I have to say is, that the French still live on the other side of the water, and are still casting their eyes hitherward — and that in the days of pugilism it was no vain blast to say that one Englishman was a match for two of t’other race; at present it would be a vain boast to say so, for these are not the days of pugilism.

But those to which the course of my narrative has carried me were the days of pugilism; it was then at its height, and consequently near its decline, for corruption had crept into the ring; and how many things, states and sects among the rest, owe their decline to this cause! But what a bold and vigorous aspect pugilism wore at that time! and the great battle was just then coming off: the day had been decided upon, and the spot — a convenient distance from the old town; and to the old town were now flocking the bruisers of England, men of tremendous renown. Let no one sneer at the bruisers of England — what were the gladiators of Rome, or the bull-fighters of Spain, in its palmiest days, compared to England’s bruisers? Pity that ever corruption should have crept in amongst them — but of that I wish not to talk; let us still hope that a spark of the old religion, of which they were the priests, still lingers in the breasts of Englishmen. There they come, the bruisers, from far London, or from wherever else they might chance to be at the time, to the great rendezvous in the old city; some came one way, some another: some of tip-top reputation came with peers in their chariots, for glory and fame are such fair things that even peers are proud to have those invested therewith by their sides; others came in their own gigs, driving their own bits of blood, and I heard one say: ‘I have driven through at a heat the whole hundred and eleven miles, and only stopped to bait twice.’ Oh, the blood-horses of old England! but they, too, have had their day — for everything beneath the sun there is a season and a time. But the greater number come just as they can contrive; on the tops of coaches, for example; and amongst these there are fellows with dark sallow faces and sharp shining eyes; and it is these that have planted rottenness in the core of pugilism, for they are Jews, and, true to their kind, have only base lucre in view.

It was fierce old Cobbett, I think, who first said that the Jews first introduced bad faith amongst pugilists. He did not always speak the truth, but at any rate he spoke it when he made that observation. Strange people the Jews — endowed with every gift but one, and that the highest, genius divine — genius which can alone make of men demigods, and elevate them above earth and what is earthy and grovelling; without which a clever nation — and, who more clever than the Jews? — may have Rambams in plenty, but never a Fielding nor a Shakespeare. A Rothschild and a Mendoza, yes — but never a Kean nor a Belcher.

So the bruisers of England are come to be present at the grand fight speedily coming off; there they are met in the precincts of the old town, near the field of the chapel, planted with tender saplings at the restoration of sporting Charles, which are now become venerable elms, as high as many a steeple; there they are met at a fitting rendezvous, where a retired coachman, with one leg, keeps an hotel and a bowling-green. I think I now see them upon the bowling-green, the men of renown, amidst hundreds of people with no renown at all, who gaze upon them with timid wonder. Fame, after all, is a glorious thing, though it lasts only for a day. There’s Cribb, the champion of England, and perhaps the best man in England; there he is, with his huge massive figure, and face wonderfully like that of a lion. There is Belcher, the younger, not the mighty one, who is gone to his place, but the Teucer Belcher, the most scientific pugilist that ever entered a ring, only wanting strength to be, I won’t say what. He appears to walk before me now, as he did that evening, with his white hat, white greatcoat, thin genteel figure, springy step, and keen, determined eye. Crosses him, what a contrast! grim, savage Shelton, who has a civil word for nobody, and a hard blow for anybody — hard! one blow, given with the proper play of his athletic arm, will unsense a giant. Yonder individual, who strolls about with his hands behind him, supporting his brown coat lappets, under-sized, and who looks anything but what he is, is the king of the light weights, so called — Randall! the terrible Randall, who has Irish blood in his veins; not the better for that, nor the worse; and not far from him is his last antagonist, Ned Turner, who, though beaten by him, still thinks himself as good a man, in which he is, perhaps, right, for it was a near thing; and ‘a better shentleman,’ in which he is quite right, for he is a Welshman. But how shall I name them all? they were there by dozens, and all tremendous in their way. There was Bulldog Hudson, and fearless Scroggins, who beat the conqueror of Sam the Jew. There was Black Richmond — no, he was not there, but I knew him well; he was the most dangerous of blacks, even with a broken thigh. There was Purcell, who could never conquer till all seemed over with him. There was — what! shall I name thee last? ay, why not? I believe that thou art the last of all that strong family still above the sod, where mayst thou long continue — true piece of English stuff, Tom of Bedford — sharp as Winter, kind as Spring.

Hail to thee, Tom of Bedford, or by whatever name it may please thee to be called, Spring or Winter. Hail to thee, six-foot Englishman of the brown eye, worthy to have carried a six-foot bow at Flodden, where England’s yeomen triumphed over Scotland’s king, his clans and chivalry. Hail to thee, last of England’s bruisers, after all the many victories which thou hast achieved — true English victories, unbought by yellow gold; need I recount them? nay, nay! they are already well known to fame — sufficient to say that Bristol’s Bull and Ireland’s Champion were vanquished by thee, and one mightier still, gold itself, thou didst overcome; for gold itself strove in vain to deaden the power of thy arm; and thus thou didst proceed till men left off challenging thee, the unvanquishable, the incorruptible. ’Tis a treat to see thee, Tom of Bedford, in thy ‘public’ in Holborn way, whither thou hast retired with thy well-earned bays. ’Tis Friday night, and nine by Holborn clock. There sits the yeoman at the end of his long room, surrounded by his friends; glasses are filled, and a song is the cry, and a song is sung well suited to the place; it finds an echo in every heart — fists are clenched, arms are waved, and the portraits of the mighty fighting men of yore, Broughton, and Slack, and Ben, which adorn the walls, appear to smile grim approbation, whilst many a manly voice joins in the bold chorus:

Here’s a health to old honest John Bull, When he’s gone we shan’t find such another, And with hearts and with glasses brim full, We will drink to old England, his mother.

But the fight! with respect to the fight, what shall I say? Little can be said about it — it was soon over; some said that the brave from town, who was reputed the best man of the two, and whose form was a perfect model of athletic beauty, allowed himself, for lucre vile, to be vanquished by the massive champion with the flattened nose. One thing is certain, that the former was suddenly seen to sink to the earth before a blow of by no means extraordinary power. Time, time! was called; but there he lay upon the ground apparently senseless, and from thence he did not lift his head till several seconds after the umpires had declared his adversary victor.

There were shouts; indeed there’s never a lack of shouts to celebrate a victory, however acquired; but there was also much grinding of teeth, especially amongst the fighting men from town. ‘Tom has sold us,’ said they, ‘sold us to the yokels; who would have thought it?’ Then there was fresh grinding of teeth, and scowling brows were turned to the heaven; but what is this? is it possible, does the heaven scowl too? why, only a quarter of an hour ago . . . but what may not happen in a quarter of an hour? For many weeks the weather had been of the most glorious description, the eventful day, too, had dawned gloriously, and so it had continued till some two hours after noon; the fight was then over; and about that time I looked up — what a glorious sky of deep blue, and what a big fierce sun swimming high above in the midst of that blue; not a cloud — there had not been one for weeks — not a cloud to be seen, only in the far west, just on the horizon, something like the extremity of a black wing; that was only a quarter of an hour ago, and now the whole northern side of the heaven is occupied by a huge black cloud, and the sun is only occasionally seen amidst masses of driving vapour; what a change! but another fight is at hand, and the pugilists are clearing the outer ring; — how their huge whips come crashing upon the heads of the yokels; blood flows, more blood than in the fight; those blows are given with right good-will, those are not sham blows, whether of whip or fist; it is with fist that grim Shelton strikes down the big yokel; he is always dangerous, grim Shelton, but now particularly so, for he has lost ten pounds betted on the brave who sold himself to the yokels; but the outer ring is cleared: and now the second fight commences; it is between two champions of less renown than the others, but is perhaps not the worse on that account. A tall thin boy is fighting in the ring with a man somewhat under the middle size, with a frame of adamant; that’s a gallant boy! he’s a yokel, but he comes from Brummagem, and he does credit to his extraction; but his adversary has a frame of adamant: in what a strange light they fight, but who can wonder, on looking at that frightful cloud usurping now one-half of heaven, and at the sun struggling with sulphurous vapour; the face of the boy, which is turned towards me, looks horrible in that light, but he is a brave boy, he strikes his foe on the forehead, and the report of the blow is like the sound of a hammer against a rock; but there is a rush and a roar overhead, a wild commotion, the tempest is beginning to break loose; there’s wind and dust, a crash, rain and hail; is it possible to fight amidst such a commotion? yes! the fight goes on; again the boy strikes the man full on the brow, but it is of no use striking that man, his frame is of adamant. ‘Boy, thy strength is beginning to give way, and thou art becoming confused’; the man now goes to work, amidst rain and hail. ‘Boy, thou wilt not hold out ten minutes longer against rain, hail, and the blows of such an antagonist.’

And now the storm was at its height; the black thunder-cloud had broken into many, which assumed the wildest shapes and the strangest colours, some of them unspeakably glorious; the rain poured in a deluge, and more than one waterspout was seen at no great distance: an immense rabble is hurrying in one direction; a multitude of men of all ranks, peers and yokels, prize-fighters and Jews, and the last came to plunder, and are now plundering amidst that wild confusion of hail and rain, men and horses, carts and carriages. But all hurry in one direction, through mud and mire; there’s a town only three miles distant, which is soon reached, and soon filled, it will not contain one-third of that mighty rabble; but there’s another town farther on — the good old city is farther on, only twelve miles; what’s that! who will stay here? onward to the old town.

Hurry-skurry, a mixed multitude of men and horses, carts and carriages, all in the direction of the old town; and, in the midst of all that mad throng, at a moment when the rain-gushes were coming down with particular fury, and the artillery of the sky was pealing as I had never heard it peal before, I felt some one seize me by the arm — I turned round, and beheld Mr. Petulengro.

‘I can’t hear you, Mr. Petulengro,’ said I; for the thunder drowned the words which he appeared to be uttering.

‘Dearginni,’ I heard Mr. Petulengro say, ‘it thundreth. I was asking, brother, whether you believe in dukkeripens?’

‘I do not, Mr. Petulengro; but this is strange weather to be asking me whether I believe in fortunes.’

‘Grondinni,’ said Mr. Petulengro, ‘it haileth. I believe in dukkeripens, brother.’

‘And who has more right,’ said I; ‘seeing that you live by them? But this tempest is truly horrible.’

‘Dearginni, grondinni ta villaminni! It thundreth, it haileth, and also flameth,’ said Mr. Petulengro. ‘Look up there, brother!’

I looked up. Connected with this tempest there was one feature to which I have already alluded — the wonderful colours of the clouds. Some were of vivid green; others of the brightest orange; others as black as pitch. The gypsy’s finger was pointed to a particular part of the sky.

‘What do you see there, brother?’

‘A strange kind of cloud.’

‘What does it look like, brother?’

‘Something like a stream of blood.’

‘That cloud foreshoweth a bloody dukkeripen.’

‘A bloody fortune!’ said I. ‘And whom may it betide?’

‘Who knows!’ said the gypsy.

Down the way, dashing and splashing, and scattering man, horse, and cart to the left and right, came an open barouche, drawn by four smoking steeds, with postilions in scarlet jackets and leather skull-caps. Two forms were conspicuous in it; that of the successful bruiser, and of his friend and backer, the sporting gentleman of my acquaintance.

‘His!’ said the gypsy, pointing to the latter, whose stern features wore a smile of triumph, as, probably recognising me in the crowd, he nodded in the direction of where I stood, as the barouche hurried by.

There went the barouche, dashing through the rain-gushes, and in it one whose boast it was that he was equal to ‘either fortune.’ Many have heard of that man — many may be desirous of knowing yet more of him. I have nothing to do with that man’s after life — he fulfilled his dukkeripen. ‘A bad, violent man!’ Softly, friend; when thou wouldst speak harshly of the dead, remember that thou hast not yet fulfilled thy own dukkeripen!

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32