Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

Three Rounds

At six o’clock the back streets were dank and black; but once in the Bethnal Green Road, blots and flares of gas and naphtha shook and flickered till every slimy cobble in the cart-way was silver-tipped. Neddy Milton was not quite fighting-fit. A day’s questing for an odd job had left him weary in the feet; and a lad of eighteen can not comfortably go unfed from breakfast to nightfall. But box he must, for the shilling was irrecoverable, and so costly a chance must not be thrown away. It was by a bout with the gloves that he looked to mend his fortunes. That was his only avenue of advancement. He could read and write quite decently, and in the beginning might even have been an office-boy, if only the widow, his mother, had been able to give him a good send-off in the matter of clothes. Also, he had had one chance of picking up a trade, but the firm already employed as many boys as the union was disposed to allow. So Neddy had to go, and pick up such stray jobs as he might.

It had been a bad day, without a doubt. Things were bad generally. It was nearly a fortnight since Ned had lost his last job, and there seemed to be no other in the world. His mother had had no slop-waistcoat finishing to do for three or four days, and he distinctly remembered that rather less than half a loaf was left after breakfast; so that it would never do to go home, for at such a time the old woman had a trick of pretending not to be hungry, and of starving herself. He almost wished that shilling of entrance-money back in his pocket. There is a deal of stuff to be bought for a shilling: fried fish, for instance, whereof the aromas, warm and rank, met him thrice in a hundred yards, and the frizzle, loud or faint, sung in his cars all along the Bethnal Green Road.

His shilling had been paid over but two days before the last job gave out, and it would be useful now. Still, the investment might turn out a gold mine. Luck must change. Meanwhile, as to being hungry — well, there was always another hole in the belt!

The landlord of the Prince Regent public-house had a large room behind his premises, which, being moved by considerations of sport and profit in doubtful proportions, he devoted two nights a week to the uses of the Regent Boxing Club. Here Neddy Milton, through a long baptism of pummelings, had learned the trick of a straight lead, a quick counter, and a timely duck; and here, in the nine-stone competition to open this very night, he might perchance punch wide the gates of Fortune. For some sporting publican, or discriminating bookmaker from Bow, might see and approve his sparring, and start him fairly, with money behind him — a professional. That would mean a match in six or eight weeks’ time, with good living in the meanwhile; a match that would have to be won, of course. And after that . . .!

Twice before he had boxed in competition. Once he won his bout in the first round, and was beaten in the second; and once he was beaten in the first, but that was by the final winner, Tab Rosser, who was now matched for a hundred a side, sparred exhibition bouts up west, wore a light Newmarket coat, and could stand whisky and soda with anybody. To be “taken up” on the strength of these early performances was more than he could reasonably expect. There might be luck in the third trial; but he would like to feel a little fitter. Breakfast (what there was of it) had been ten hours ago, and since, there had been but a half-pint of four-ale. It was the treat of a well-meaning friend, but it lay cold on the stomach for want of solid company.

Turning into Cambridge Road, he crossed, and went on among the by-streets leading toward Globe Road. Now and again a slight aspersion of fine rain come down the gusts, and further damped his cap and shoulders and the ragged hair that hung over his collar. Also a cold spot under one foot gave him fears of a hole in his boot-sole as he tramped in the chilly mud.

In the Prince Regent there were many at the bar, and the most of them knew Neddy.

“Wayo, Ned,” said one lad with a pitted face, “you don’t look much of a bleed’n’ champion. ‘Ave a drop o’ beer.”

Ned took a sparing pull at the pot, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. A large man behind him guffawed, and Neddy reddened high. He had heard the joke. The man himself was one of the very backers that might make one’s fortune, and the man’s companion thought it would be unsafe to back Neddy to fight anything but a beefsteak.

“You’re drawed with Patsy Beard,” one of Ned’s friends informed him. “You’ll ‘ave to buck up.”

This was bad. Patsy Beard, on known form, stood best chance of winning the competition, and to have to meet him at first set-off was ill luck, and no mistake. He was a thickset little butcher, and there was just the ghost of a hope that he might be found to be a bit over the weight.

A lad by the bar looked inquiringly in Ned’s face and then came toward him, shouldering him quietly out of the group. It was Sam, Young, whom Neddy had beaten in an earlier competition.

“‘ungry, Neddy?” he asked, in a corner.

It was with a shamed face that Neddy confessed; for among those in peril of hunger it is disgraceful to be hungry. Sam unpocketed a greasy paper enveloping a pallid sausage-roll. “‘Ave ‘alf o’ this,” he said. It was a heavy and a clammy thing, but Ned took it, furtively swallowed a large piece, and returned the rest with sheepish thanks. He did not turn again toward the others, but went through to the room where the ring was pitched.

The proceedings began. First there were exhibition bouts, to play in the company. Neddy fidgeted. Why couldn’t they begin the competition at once? When they did, his bout would be number five. That would mean at least an hour of waiting; and the longer he waited the less fit he would feel.

In time the exhibition sparring was ended, and, the real business began. He watched the early bouts feverishly, feeling unaccountably anxious. The lads looked strong and healthy. Patsy Beard was as strong as any of them, and heavy. Could he stand it? This excited nervousness was new and difficult to understand. He had never felt like it before. He was almost trembling; and that lump of sausage-ball had struck half-way, and made breathing painful work. Patsy Beard was at the opposite corner, surrounded by admirers. He was red-faced, well-fed, fleshy, and confident. His short hair clung shinily about his bullet head. Neddy noted a small piece of court-plaster at the side of his nose. Plainly there was a tender spot, and it must be gone for, be it cut, or scratch, or only pimple. On the left side, too, quite handy. Come, there was some comfort in that.

He felt to watching the bout. It was a hard fight, and both the lads were swinging the right again and again for a knock-out. But the pace was too hot, and they were soon breathing like men about to sneeze, wearily pawing at each other while their heads hung forward. Somebody jogged him in the back, and he found he must get ready. His dressing was simple. An ill-conditioned old pair of rubber gymnasium shoes replaced his equally ill-conditioned bluchers, and a cotton singlet his shirt; but his baggy corduroys, ragged at the ankles and doubtful at the seat, remained.

Presently the last pair of boxers was brought into the dressing-room, and one of the seconds, a battered old pug with one eye, at once seized Neddy. “Come along, young ’un,” he said. “I’m your bloke. Got no flannels? Awright. jump on the scales.”

There was no doubt as to the weight. He had scaled at eight stone thirteen; now it was eight stone bare. Patsy Beard, on the other hand, weighed the full nine, without an ounce to spare.

“You’re givin’ ’im a stone,” said the old pug; “all the more credit ‘idin’ of ’im. ‘Ere, let’s shove ’em on. Feel ’em.” He grinned and blinked his solitary eye as he pulled on Neddy’s hand one of a very black and long-worn pair of boxing-gloves. They were soft and flaccid; Neddy’s heart warmed toward the one-eyed man, for well he knew from many knocks that the softer the glove the harder the fist feels through it. “Sawftest pair in the place, s’elp me,” grunted the second, with one glove hanging from his teeth. “My lad ‘ad ’em last time. Come on.”

He snatched a towel and a bottle of water, and hurried Neddy from the dressing-room to the ring. Neddy sat in his chair in the ring-corner, and spread his arms on the ropes; while his second, arms uplifted, stood before him and ducked solemnly forward and back with the towel flicking overhead. While he was fanning, Neddy was still conscious of the lump of sausage-roll in his chest. Also he fell to wondering idly why they called Beard Patsy, when his first name was Joe. The same reflection applied to Tab Rosser, and Hocko Jones, and Tiggy Magson. But certainly he felt hollow and sick in the belly. Could he stand punching? It would never do to chuck it half through. Still —

“Ready!” sung the timekeeper.

The old pug threw the towel over his arm. “‘Ave a moistener,” he said, presenting the water-bottle to Neddy’s mouth. “Don’t swallow any,” he added, as his principal took a large gulp. “Spit it out.”

“Seconds out of the ring!”

The old prize-fighter took his bottle and climbed through the ropes. “Don’t go in-fightin’,” he whispered from behind. “Mark ’im on the stickin’-plaster; an’ if you don’t give ’im a ‘idin’, bli’ me, I’ll give you one!”

“Time!”

The seconds seized the chairs and dragged them out of the ring, as the lads advanced and shook hands. Patsy Beard flung back his right foot, and made a flashy prance with his left knee as they began to spar for an opening; it was Patsy’s way. All Neddy’s anxiety was gone. The moment his right foot dropped behind his left, and his left hand rocked, knuckles UP, before him, he was a competent workman, with all his tools in order. Even the lump of dough on his chest he felt no more.

“Buy, buy!” bawled a wag in the crowd, as a delicate allusion to Beard’s more ordinary occupation. Patsy grinned at the compliment, but Neddy confined his attention to business. He feinted with his left, and got back; but Patsy was not to be drawn. Then Neddy stepped in and led quickly, ducking the counter and repeating before getting away. Patsy came with a rush and fought for the body, but Neddy slipped him, and got in one for nothing on the ear. The company howled.

They sparred in the middle. Patsy led perfunctorily with the left now and again, while his right elbow undulated nervously. That foretold an attempt to knock out with the right: precautious, a straight and persistent left and a wary eye. So Neddy kept poking out his left, and never lost sight of the court-plaster, never of the shifty right. Give and take was the order of the round, and they fought all over the ring, Patsy Beard making for close quarters, and Neddy keeping off, and stopping him with the left. Neddy met a straight punch on the nose that made his eyes water, but through the tears he saw the plaster displaced, and a tiny stream of blood trickling toward the corner of Patsy’s mouth. Plainly it was a cut. He broke ground, stopped half-way, and banged in left and right. He got a sharp drive on the neck for his pains, and took the right on his elbow; but he had landed on the spot, and the tiny streak of blood was smeared out wide across Patsy’s face. The company roared and whistled with enthusiasm. It was a capital rally.

But now Neddy’s left grew slower, and was heavy to lift. From time to time.Patsy got in one for nothing, and soon began to drive him about the ring. Neddy fought on, weak and gasping, and longed for the call of time. His arms felt as if they were hung with lead, and he could do little more than push feebly. He heard the yell of many voices: “Now then, Patsy, hout him I ‘Ave ’im out I That’s it, Patsy, another like that! Keep on, Patsy!”

Patsy kept on. Right and left, above and below, Neddy could see the blows coming. But he was powerless to guard or to return. He could but stagger about, and now and again swing an ineffectual arm as it hung from the shoulder. Presently a flush hit on the nose drove him against the ropes, another in the ribs almost through them. But a desperate wide whirl of his right brought it heavily on Patsy’s tender spot, and tore open the cut. Patsy winced, and —

“Time!”

Neddy was grabbed at the waist and put in his chair. “Good lad!” said the one-eyed pug in his ear as he sponged his face. “Nothink like pluck. But you mustn’t go to pieces ‘alf through the round. Was it a awk’ard poke upsetcher?”

Neddy, lying back and panting wildly, shook his head as he gazed at the ceiling.

“Awright; try an’ save yourself a bit. Keep yer left goin’— you roasted ’im good with that; ‘e’ll want a yard o’ plaster tonight. An’ when ‘e gits leadin’ loose, take it auf an’ give him the right straight from the guard — if you know the trick. Point o’ the jaw that’s for, mind. ‘Ave a cooler.” He took a mouthful of water and blew it in a fine spray in Neddy’s face, wiped it down, and began another overhead fanning.

“Seconds out of the ring!” called the timekeeper.

“Go, it, my lad”— thus a whisper from behind —“you can walk over ’im!” And Neddy felt the wet sponge squeezed against the back of his neck, and the cool water tickling down his spine.

“Time!”

Neddy was better, though there was a worn feeling in his arm muscles. Patsy’s cut had been well sponged, but it still bled, and Patsy meant giving Neddy no rest. He rushed at once, but was met by a clean right-hander, slap on the sore spot. “Bravo, Neddy!” came a voice, and the company howled as before. Patsy was steadied. He sparred with some caution, twitching the cheek next the cut. Neddy would not lead (for he must save himself), and so the two sparred for a few seconds. Then Patsy rushed again, and Neddy got busy with both hands. Once he managed to get the right in from the guard as his second had advised, but not heavily. He could feel his strength going — earlier than in the last round — and Patsy was as strong and determined as ever. Another rush carried Neddy against the ropes, where he got two heavy body blows and a bad jaw-rattler. He floundered to the right in an attempt to slip, and fell on his face. He rolled on his side, however, and was up again, breathless and unsteady. There was a sickening throbbing in the crown of his head, and he could scarce lift his arms. But there was no respite; the other lad was at him again, and he was driven across the ring and back, blindly pushing his aching arms before him, while punch followed punch on nose, ears, jaws, and body, till something began to beat inside his head, louder and harder than all beside, stunning and sickening him. He could hear the crowd roaring still, but it seemed further off; and the yells of “That’s it, Patsy! Now you’re got ’im! Keep at ’im! Hout ’im this time!”— came from some other building close by where somebody was getting a bad licking. Somebody with no control of his legs, and no breath to spit away the blood from his nose as it ran and stuck over his lips. Somebody praying for the end of the three minutes that seemed three hours, and groaning inwardly because of a lump of cold lead in his belly that had once been sausage-roll. Somebody to whom a few called — still in the other building —“Chuck it, Neddy; it’s no good. Why don’cher chuck it?” while others said, “Take ’im away, tyke ’im away!” Then something hit him between the eyes, and some other thing behind the head; that was one of the posts. He swung an arm, but it met nothing; then the other, and it struck somewhere; and then there was a bang that twisted his head, and hard boards were against his face. Oh, it was bad, but it was a rest.

Cold water was on his face, and somebody spoke. He was in his chair again, and the one-eyed man was sponging him.

“It was the call o’ time as saved ye then,” he said; “you’d never ‘a’ got up in the ten seconds. Y’ain’t up to another round, are ye? Better chuck it. It’s no disgrace, after the way you’ve stood up.” But Neddy shook his head. He had got through two of the three rounds, and didn’t mean throwing away a chance of saving the bout.

“Awright, if you won’t,” his mentor said. “Nothink like pluck. But you’re no good on points — a knock-out’s the only chance. Nurse yer right, an’ give it ’im good on the point. ‘E’s none so fresh ‘isself; ‘e’s blowed with the work, an’ you pasted ’im fine when you did ‘it. Last thing, just before ‘e sent ye down, ye dropped a ‘ot ’un on ‘is beak. Didn’t see it, didyer?” The old bruiser rubbed vigorously at his arms, and gave him a small, but welcome, drink of water.

“Seconds out of the ring!”

The one-eyed man was gone once more, but again his voice came from behind. “Mind — give it ”im ‘ard and give it ’im soon, an’ if you feel groggy, chuck it d’rectly. If ye don’t, I’ll drag ye out by the’ slack o’ yer trousis an’ disgrace ye.”

“Time!”

Neddy knew there was little more than half a minute’s boxing left in him — perhaps not so much. He must do his best at once. Patsy was showing signs of hard wear, and still blew a little; his nose was encouragingly crimson at the nostrils, and the cut was open and raw. He rushed in with a lead which Neddy ducked and cross-countered, though ineffectually. There were a few vigorous exchanges, and then Neddy staggered back from a straight drive on the mouth. There was a shout of “Patsy!” and Patsy sprung in, right elbow all a-jerk, and flung in the left. Neddy guarded wildly, and banged in the right from the guard. Had he hit? He had felt no shock, but there was Patsy lying on his face.

The crowd roared and roared again. The old pug stuffed his chair hastily through the ropes, and Neddy sunk into it, panting, with bloodshot eyes. Patsy lay still. The timekeeper watched the seconds-hand pass its ten points, and gave the word, but Patsy only moved a leg. Neddy Milton had won.

“Brayvo, young ’un!” said the old fighter, as he threw his arm about Neddy’s waist, and helped him to the dressing-room. “Cleanest knock-out I ever see — smack on the point o’ the jaw. Never thought you’d ‘a’ done it. I said there was nothink like pluck, didn’t? ‘Ave a wash now, an you’ll be all the better for the exercise. Give us them gloves — I’m off for the next bout.” And he seized another lad, and marched him out.

“‘Ave a drop o’ beer,” said one of Neddy’s new-won friends, extending a tankard. He took it, though he scarcely felt awake. He was listless and weak, and would not have moved for an hour had he been left alone. But Patsy was brought to, and sneezed loudly, and Neddy was hauled over to shake hands with him.

“You give me a ‘ell of a doin’,” said Neddy. “I never thought I’d beat you.”

“Beat me? Well, you ain’t, ‘ave you? ‘Ow?”

“Knock-out,” answered several at once. “Well, I’m damned said Patsy Beard.”

In the bar, after the evening’s business, Neddy sat and looked wistfully at the stout red-faced men who smoked fourpenny cigars and drank special Scotch; but not one noticed him. His luck had not come after all. But there was the second round of bouts, and the final, in a week’s time — perhaps it would come then. If he could only win the final — then it must come. Meanwhile, he was sick and faint, and felt doubtful about getting home. Outside it was, raining hard. He laid his head on the bar table at which he was sitting, and at closing time there they found him asleep.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11