I am very fond of reading about battles, and have most of Marlborough’s and Wellington’s at my fingers’ ends; but the most tremendous combat I ever saw, and one that interests me to think of more than Malplaquet or Waterloo (which, by the way, has grown to be a downright nuisance, so much do men talk of it after dinner, prating most disgustingly about “the Prussians coming up,” and what not)— I say the most tremendous combat ever known was that between Berry and Biggs the gown-boy, which commenced in a certain place called Middle Briars, situated in the midst of the cloisters that run along the side of the playground of Slaughter House School, near Smithfield, London. It was there, madam, that your humble servant had the honour of acquiring, after six years’ labour, that immense fund of classical knowledge which in after life has been so exceedingly useful to him.
The circumstances of the quarrel were these:— Biggs, the gown-boy (a man who, in those days, I thought was at least seven feet high, and was quite thunderstruck to find in after life that he measured no more than five feet four), was what we called “second cock” of the school; the first cock was a great big, good-humoured, lazy, fair-haired fellow, Old Hawkins by name, who, because he was large and good-humoured, hurt nobody. Biggs, on the contrary, was a sad bully; he had half-a-dozen fags, and beat them all unmercifully. Moreover, he had a little brother, a boarder in Potky’s house, whom, as a matter of course, he hated and maltreated worse than anyone else.
Well, one day, because young Biggs had not brought his brother his hoops, or had not caught a ball at cricket, or for some other equally good reason, Biggs the elder so belaboured the poor little fellow, that Berry, who was sauntering by, and saw the dreadful blows which the elder brother was dealing to the younger with his hockey-stick, felt a compassion for the little fellow (perhaps he had a jealousy against Biggs, and wanted to try a few rounds with him, but that I can’t vouch for); however, Berry passing by, stopped and said, “Don’t you think you have thrashed the boy enough, Biggs?” He spoke this in a very civil tone, for he never would have thought of interfering rudely with the sacred privilege that an upper boy at a public school always has of beating a junior, especially when they happen to be brothers.
The reply of Biggs, as might be expected, was to hit young Biggs with the hockey-stick twice as hard as before, until the little wretch howled with pain. “I suppose it’s no business of yours, Berry,” said Biggs, thumping away all the while, and laid on worse and worse.
Until Berry (and, indeed, little Biggs) could bear it no longer, and the former, bouncing forward, wrenched the stick out of old Biggs’s hands, and sent it whirling out of the cloister window, to the great wonder of a crowd of us small boys, who were looking on. Little boys always like to see a little companion of their own soundly beaten.
“There!” said Berry, looking into Biggs’s face, as much as to say, “I’ve gone and done it;” and he added to the brother, “Scud away, you little thief; I’ve saved you this time.”
“Stop, young Biggs!” roared out his brother after a pause; “or I’ll break every bone in your infernal scoundrelly skin!”
Young Biggs looked at Berry, then at his brother, then came at his brother’s order, as if back to be beaten again; but lost heart, and ran away as fast as his little legs could carry him.
“I’ll do for him another time,” said Biggs. “Here, under-boy, take my coat;” and we all began to gather round and formed a ring.
“We had better wait till after school, Biggs,” cried Berry, quite cool, but looking a little pale. “There are only five minutes now, and it will take you more than that to thrash me.”
Biggs upon this committed a great error; for he struck Berry slightly across the face with the back of his hand, saying, “You are in a funk.” But this was a feeling which Frank Berry did not in the least entertain; for, in reply to Biggs’s back-hander, and as quick as thought, and with all his might and main — pong! he delivered a blow upon old Biggs’s nose that made the claret spirt, and sent the second cock down to the ground as if he had been shot.
He was up again, however, in a minute, his face white and gashed with blood, his eyes glaring, a ghastly spectacle; and Berry, meanwhile, had taken his coat off, and by this time there were gathered in the cloisters, on all the windows, and upon each other’s shoulders, one hundred and twenty young gentlemen at the very least, for the news had gone out through the playground of “a fight between Berry and Biggs.”
But Berry was quite right in his remark about the propriety of deferring the business, for at this minute Mr. Chip, the second master, came down the cloisters going into school, and grinned in his queer way as he saw the state of Biggs’s face. “Holloa, Mr. Biggs,” said he, “I suppose you have run against a finger-post.” That was the regular joke with us at school, and you may be sure we all laughed heartily: as we always did when Mr. Chip made a joke, or anything like a joke. “You had better go to the pump, sir, and get yourself washed, and not let Doctor Buckle see you in that condition.” So saying, Mr. Chip disappeared to his duties in the under-school, whither all we little boys followed him.
It was Wednesday, a half-holiday, as everybody knows, and boiled-beef day at Slaughter House. I was in the same boarding-house with Berry, and we all looked to see whether he ate a good dinner, just as one would examine a man who was going to be hanged. I recollected, in after-life, in Germany, seeing a friend who was going to fight a duel eat five larks for his breakfast, and thought I had seldom witnessed greater courage. Berry ate moderately of the boiled beef — BOILED CHILD we used to call it at school, in our elegant jocular way; he knew a great deal better than to load his stomach upon the eve of such a contest as was going to take place.
Dinner was very soon over, and Mr. Chip, who had been all the while joking Berry, and pressing him to eat, called him up into his study, to the great disappointment of us all, for we thought he was going to prevent the fight; but no such thing. The Reverend Edward Chip took Berry into his study, and poured him out two glasses of port-wine, which he made him take with a biscuit, and patted him on the back, and went off. I have no doubt he was longing, like all of us, to see the battle; but etiquette, you know, forbade.
When we went out into the green, Old Hawkins was there — the great Hawkins, the cock of the school. I have never seen the man since, but still think of him as of something awful, gigantic, mysterious: he who could thrash everybody, who could beat all the masters; how we longed for him to put in his hand and lick Buckle! He was a dull boy, not very high in the school, and had all his exercises written for him. Buckle knew this, but respected him; never called him up to read Greek plays; passed over all his blunders, which were many; let him go out of half-holidays into the town as he pleased: how should any man dare to stop him — the great calm magnanimous silent Strength! They say he licked a Life-Guardsman: I wonder whether it was Shaw, who killed all those Frenchmen? No, it could not be Shaw, for he was dead au champ d’honneur; but he WOULD have licked Shaw if he had been alive. A bargeman I know he licked, at Jack Randall’s in Slaughter House Lane. Old Hawkins was too lazy to play at cricket; he sauntered all day in the sunshine about the green, accompanied by little Tippins, who was in the sixth form, laughed and joked at Hawkins eternally, and was the person who wrote all his exercises.
Instead of going into town this afternoon, Hawkins remained at Slaughter House, to see the great fight between the second and third cocks.
The different masters of the school kept boarding-houses (such as Potky’s, Chip’s, Wickens’s, Pinney’s, and so on), and the playground, or “green” as it was called, although the only thing green about the place was the broken glass on the walls that separate Slaughter House from Wilderness Row and Goswell Street —(many a time have I seen Mr. Pickwick look out of his window in that street, though we did not know him then)— the playground, or green, was common to all. But if any stray boy from Potky’s was found, for instance, in, or entering into, Chip’s house, the most dreadful tortures were practised upon him: as I can answer in my own case.
Fancy, then, our astonishment at seeing a little three-foot wretch, of the name of Wills, one of Hawkins’s fags (they were both in Potky’s), walk undismayed amongst us lions at Chip’s house, as the “rich and rare” young lady did in Ireland. We were going to set upon him and devour or otherwise maltreat him, when he cried out in a little shrill impertinent voice, “TELL BERRY I WANT HIM!”
We all roared with laughter. Berry was in the sixth form, and Wills or any under-boy would as soon have thought of “wanting” him, as I should of wanting the Duke of Wellington.
Little Wills looked round in an imperious kind of way. “Well,” says he, stamping his foot, “do you hear? TELL BERRY THAT HAWKINS WANTS HIM!”
As for resisting the law of Hawkins, you might as soon think of resisting immortal Jove. Berry and Tolmash, who was to be his bottle-holder, made their appearance immediately, and walked out into the green where Hawkins was waiting, and, with an irresistible audacity that only belonged to himself, in the face of nature and all the regulations of the place, was smoking a cigar. When Berry and Tolmash found him, the three began slowly pacing up and down in the sunshine, and we little boys watched them.
Hawkins moved his arms and hands every now and then, and was evidently laying down the law about boxing. We saw his fists darting out every now and then with mysterious swiftness, hitting one, two, quick as thought, as if in the face of an adversary; now his left hand went up, as if guarding his own head, now his immense right fist dreadfully flapped the air, as if punishing his imaginary opponent’s miserable ribs. The conversation lasted for some ten minutes, about which time gown-boys’ dinner was over, and we saw these youths, in their black horned-button jackets and knee-breeches, issuing from their door in the cloisters. There were no hoops, no cricket-bats, as usual on a half-holiday. Who would have thought of play in expectation of such tremendous sport as was in store for us?
Towering among the gown-boys, of whom he was the head and the tyrant, leaning upon Bushby’s arm, and followed at a little distance by many curious pale awe-stricken boys, dressed in his black silk stockings, which he always sported, and with a crimson bandanna tied round his waist, came BIGGS. His nose was swollen with the blow given before school, but his eyes flashed fire. He was laughing and sneering with Bushby, and evidently intended to make minced meat of Berry.
The betting began pretty freely: the bets were against poor Berry. Five to three were offered — in ginger-beer. I took six to four in raspberry open tarts. The upper boys carried the thing farther still: and I know for a fact, that Swang’s book amounted to four pound three (but he hedged a good deal), and Tittery lost seventeen shillings in a single bet to Pitts, who took the odds.
As Biggs and his party arrived, I heard Hawkins say to Berry, “For heaven’s sake, my boy, fib with your right, and MIND HIS LEFT HAND!”
Middle Briars was voted to be too confined a space for the combat, and it was agreed that it should take place behind the under-school in the shade, whither we all went. Hawkins, with his immense silver hunting-watch, kept the time; and water was brought from the pump close to Notley’s the pastrycook’s, who did not admire fisticuffs at all on half-holidays, for the fights kept the boys away from his shop. Gutley was the only fellow in the school who remained faithful to him, and he sat on the counter — the great gormandising brute! — eating tarts the whole day.
This famous fight, as every Slaughter House man knows, lasted for two hours and twenty-nine minutes, by Hawkins’s immense watch. All this time the air resounded with cries of “Go it, Berry!” “Go it, Biggs!” “Pitch into him!” “Give it him!” and so on. Shall I describe the hundred and two rounds of the combat? — No! — It would occupy too much space, and the taste for such descriptions has passed away. 3
1st round. Both the combatants fresh, and in prime order. The weight and inches somewhat on the gown-boy’s side. Berry goes gallantly in, and delivers a clinker on the gown-boy’s jaw. Biggs makes play with his left. Berry down.
4th round. Claret drawn in profusion from the gown-boy’s grogshop. (He went down, and had his front tooth knocked out, but the blow cut Berry’s knuckles a great deal.)
15th round. Chancery. Fibbing. Biggs makes dreadful work with his left. Break away. Rally. Biggs down. Betting still six to four on the gown-boy.
20th round. The men both dreadfully punished. Berry somewhat shy of his adversary’s left hand.
29th to 42nd round. The Chipsite all this while breaks away from the gown-boy’s left, and goes down on a knee. Six to four on the gown-boy, until the fortieth round, when the bets became equal.
102nd and last round. For half-an-hour the men had stood up to each other, but were almost too weary to strike. The gown-boy’s face hardly to be recognised, swollen and streaming with blood. The Chipsite in a similar condition, and still more punished about his side from his enemy’s left hand. Berry gives a blow at his adversary’s face, and falls over him as he falls.
The gown-boy can’t come up to time. And thus ended the great fight of Berry and Biggs.
And what, pray, has this horrid description of a battle and parcel of schoolboys to do with Men’s Wives?
What has it to do with Men’s Wives? — A great deal more, madam, than you think for. Only read Chapter II., and you shall hear.
3 As it is very probable that many fair readers may not approve of the extremely forcible language in which the combat is depicted, I beg them to skip it and pass on to the next chapter, and to remember that it has been modelled on the style of the very best writers of the sporting papers.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00